Back in April, I had the privilege to make a presentation to the Duke Sanford Veterans Association, co-hosted by my son, Rob, who is a Special Operations Officer with the U.S. Army as well as a Policy Student at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. The presentation was titled “Steering The Battleship.”
Why that name? It’s all about changing organizational culture for the better. To do that successfully, one must be intentional, deliberate, and willing to take the time needed… much like steering a (metaphorical) battleship.
The presentation starts about 6 minutes into the video.
Beneath the video is a transcript of the presentation, with links to more information on some of the topics we discussed.
Steering The Battleship: A Presentation with the Duke Sanford Veterans Association
This presentation is associated with the Duke Sanford Veterans Association. For those of you who may not know, it’s a fairly new organization here at Duke Sanford that looks to connect and expand upon the veteran experience by integrating with the greater community at large. Please check out our website if you would like some more information.
Before I turn it over to Rob Mixon [son of Robert Mixon], I just wanted to kind of lay out what we’re going to do. For about the first 25 minutes, Rob is going to engage in some direct questions with the expert that’s on the panel and get some feedback. And towards the end of that, about 25 minutes, we’ll have an open answer and question time, please just raise your hand, and we’ll call on you in the order that your hand was raised. If you do not feel comfortable asking the question, feel free to direct message me, and I will ask that question anonymously on your behalf. So without further ado, I’d like to turn it over to Rob Mixon.
Thanks, James, I appreciate it. I’ll go ahead and introduce our guest speaker. I’ve met him once or twice! Our guest speaker today is Retired Major General Robert Mixon. He served 33 years on active duty commissioning out of West Point. And that his last two jobs before retirement, he was the Deputy Director and Chief of Staff of the US Army Future Center where they worked on modularity on the force, kind of came out with the creation of the Brigade Combat Team concept. And then from there, he went to be the commanding general of Fort Carson, Colorado in the 7th Infantry Division.
After retiring and getting out, he worked a few different jobs as President and Vice President roles. And then he decided to start his own company, also published two books. The first one, “Cows in the Living Room,” was a book on developing an effective strategic plan and sustaining it. His next book was, “We’re All In: The Journey to a World-Class Culture” — that’s the book that we’re going to get a few questions from today. And so, I’ll turn it over to you. Just briefly describe what it is that you guys do at Level Five Associates and then I’ll ask some questions.
Okay, Rob, thanks. Well, it’s good to see everyone here. James, thanks for helping facilitate this as well. And to all the Duke Sanford Veterans Association attendees today, I’m certainly in your debt for the service you’ve provided to the nation.
Level Five Associates is essentially a leadership company. And for the past seven years or so, I’ve been privileged to be able to work with a number of different leaders and companies in executive coaching, strategic planning, and leadership workshops to help people grow leaders who “get it.”
And I’ve been fortunate enough to co-author and author a couple of books… and actually, in addition to my mom and my son Rob, I got two or three good reviews on the last one — so that’s pretty cool! But I enjoy doing what I can do, to help move the needle with companies and leaders in different organizations. Different types of organizations: for profit, not for profit, manufacturing services, et cetera.
Again, I’d like to thank you for coming to speak with us on organizational culture. We’ll kick it off. Many people in attendance that we have here are soon going to head out to do internships or look for careers that are different than what they experienced in the military, if they’re a veteran, or possibly different than what they experienced before coming to school, at different levels. And before we get into more discussions on organizational culture, we titled this talk, “Steering The Battleship.” And so, I was going to ask you if you could briefly describe what that means in context with organizational culture?
Yeah, I think, Rob, the idea here is that all of us in an organization should play some role in guiding where the organization goes. We used to have a saying back in the day — when giants roamed the earth — that most of us were just like the old galley ships, below deck, and without sunlight and we would pull when the drum beats, and the saying was then ‘that the beatings will continue until morale improves.’
Well, I don’t think we live in that world now, especially. I’m not sure we did then. I think we were just making that up. But for the most part, I think us as leaders, and in the service, and in the companies you’re going to be interning in, I think you’re going to find out that you could play a role in “Steering The Battleship” if you want to — if you’re deliberate about it and thoughtful in your approach. So that’s where the term comes from.
Thanks. And the second question, you described in your book “We’re All In.” You talked about the Army’s mantra of ‘be, know, do.’ And I was curious how this cultural experience by service members or anybody else could fit into civilian organizations and how the ‘be, know, do’ concept works?
Well, continuing the Shameless Book Promotion theme! I tell a story in the book about my first platoon sergeant, and how he taught me to get my fingernails dirty. I think that really epitomized the ‘be, know, do’ culture that the military represented for me. You had to be the standard. You had to know your tasks, your job. And then you have to do the right thing. So, ‘be, know, do’ is really a way of life for soldiers and servicemen and women that can transfer directly into a corporate culture.
You can be the standard, you can know, you can be technically and tactically competent. And then you can set the example of doing the right thing. Do the right thing when no one’s looking. So, you can make a difference. And that ‘be, know, do’ model that we learned in the Army… take it into a corporate experience and you can have an immediate impact on others who are indeed watching.
So, the next question, when we go into an organization, usually you sit down with your superior, your boss, and a lot of times, the leadership kind of drive this culture within an organization. I was curious if there’s any signs, positive or negative flags, that you can take away from meeting with the boss and their behaviors, what they say, kind of give you a snapshot of what the organization is as you’re getting your feet wet and becoming a new member of it.
I think there’s a couple of signals here we can talk about. One of them is, does he or she seem to be genuinely curious about you and your story than your journey and your role in the organization? I’d use the term ‘power questions’ because I think curious leaders ask power questions. They don’t simply ask, “how’s it going” or “what’s up?” They ask you questions like, “what are your dreams,” “what do you aspire to be the next stage of your journey in life?” “Where do you think you can learn the most in this organization which will contribute to our success?” And that modeling curiosity is a key indicator to me that the organizational culture is healthy.
If you simply listen to a diatribe in that first engagement with your boss, that tells you that the culture may not be healthy. It may be more directive than engaging or inclusive as the term I would use. Directive cultures, we talk about ‘level one’ and ‘level two’ cultures and the ‘name tag’ cultures and ‘follower’ cultures, those are directives in nature.
You can tell a lot in the first two minutes with your boss whether or not he or she is truly intellectually curious about you and wants to know more about what you can do to make a difference, and not so much about what he or she did when they were growing up the organization. And I think that’s an inclusive approach which is very important in determining the health of the culture of the organization that you’re in.
And then outside of the boss, as you’re getting to know other coworkers and seeing them on a regular basis, is there other signs around the workplace on how positive or negative the culture is?
Yeah, there are. And what I’ve seen in a number of different organizations that I’ve been fortunate enough to go into… or in some cases less fortunate, but what I’ve seen is that positivity is the dominant theme in the healthy cultures and the ecosystems you want to belong to. People smile, they’re not looking for something wrong. They’re looking for what we can reinforce to do better. And I think it’s even scientifically proven to be… it cascades into everybody else. If you’re positive, you’re smiling, you have a self-deprecating sense of humor and you take your work seriously but not yourself, that affects everybody else.
And it affects them every day. You can’t just do it for one day and then the next day you turn into that ogre again. You’ve got to reflect positivity every day, you have to bring it. But the healthy cultures have people who do that. And you can pick up on it pretty quickly. And you can also represent it yourself. If you walk in the door smiling, positive, looking people in the eye, listening without interrupting, you’re going to find out that that has a very positive effect on other people.
And then, as we talk about C-suite leaders affecting culture for the good or the bad and we talked about “Steering The Battleship,” and I think probably one of the questions I was most curious about is most of us, most don’t start out as C-suite leaders, and if you do, then that’s awesome. But how can we influence the steering of the battleship before, while not necessarily at the helm?
Well, again, part of what I mentioned earlier, Rob, about positivity. You can reflect positivity. And you can reflect it in the way you carry yourself, in the way you address other people, and the way you model that curiosity. Senior leaders of the organization, their fingerprints are all over the culture of the organization. And I say that because what they say and do or don’t say and do feeds the ecosystem directly. Whether they modeled curiosity with others will immediately, you’ll pick up on within a few days when you go into an organization, you’ll pick up on it. You’ll pick up on it in the nature of how information is exchanged.
Are power questions asked, or are directions issued in electronic communication. I would argue that electronic — email and texts — is only a way of sharing information, you really can’t communicate that way. You have to communicate with in person, or in our case here, virtual or that the very least telephonic where you can get some sound in a conversation.
But the methodology they use to communicate and then how they communicate in a positive, inquisitive way, it cascades all throughout the organization, but you can also influence. One of my good friends wrote a book called “Ways and Means of Managing Up,” and Colonel Bill Smullen is his name and he’s a professor at Syracuse University now.
But when he and I worked for General Colin Powell, we worked hard to provide General Powell and the other flag officers in the Pentagon — in those crazy days — that we could provide them with positivity in our approach. And in our ways, we attempted to solve problems, present solutions, make recommendations. So you can do the same thing, I think, if you just go in the door with the right attitudes.
And then to kind of build on that, I wanted to ask you if you could describe your understanding of the, or use of, the ‘coalition of the willing’ in changing culture?
Yeah. That’s what I call a ‘level four’ culture in “We’re All In.” Level four culture is pretty healthy because it’s made up of a coalition of people in the organization who are willing to put the greater good ahead of their own. And it’s important to recognize when your peers and those around you are demonstrating that they are willing to form a coalition to work towards the greater good.
Veterans, we know how to do this. I mean, we know how to pull together. We know what a battle buddy is. But it’s harder for people who haven’t been in the service, in uniform, to identify and understand that greater good, unless you’re taught and led by people who walk that talk, who believe it and behave it.
And so that’s where I think, when you’re among people who have that willingness to work towards the greater good, then you want to do it too. It’s sort of like positivity, right? If you reflect positivity, other people want to be positive. If you smile and say, “how can we get this done,” versus, “well, I got screwed again today,” that’s a whole different approach, isn’t it?
One of my favorite stories or experiences I would share with you was a great boss I had, Captain David M. Robinson, back in the day. And Captain Robinson had two ways to approach a challenge which he would impart to us.
One was, “what were you thinking?” The other was, “okay, so what did we learn?”
Think about the power of the difference of those two approaches to leadership, to influence, to being a team player?
If you’re looking for “what were you thinking?” The shields are going to go up like Star Wars, right?
But when you approach a situation with, “okay, Jim, what did we learn here,” I think you’re going to find that people buy it a whole lot more quickly and a whole lot more completely. And that ‘coalition of the willing’ has a chance to come to life.
But I would also share with you, that you can never take a culture for granted. It either gets better or it gets worse every day. So that level of commitment has got to, you got to have that level of commitment and you got to sustain it and nurture it and others if you want a ‘level four’ or even ‘level five’ culture to come to life.
Thank you. Let us switch gears and talk about mission statements. So, most organizations have a mission statement. And I think a lot of times, it feels like a ‘check the box.’ You have a mission statement and then it’s buried in some documents somewhere that somebody may be able to pull up and produce if they’re asked for it. But, overall, it’s just like, “we made a mission statement and now we can shelve that and do something else.” So, is the mission statement just to check the box or does it have an impact on the culture of an organization?
Well, it’s a little bit, you’re leading into that, Rob, I would say, but the impact of the mission statement is very, very powerful. But it’s only powerful if there’s a level of commitment to it. I encourage all the executives I worked with, both in one on one and in a team setting, to develop and write a personal mission statement and a personal leadership philosophy. The personal mission statement is, “who am I, what do I do and why do I do?” One or two sentences typically.
Many leaders I’ve worked with outside of the military in particular have never written a personal mission statement in their lives.
And they struggle, much less with the personal leadership philosophy… which is basically a one-page document that takes your personal mission statement and fleshes it out into some of its components of your values and your operating principles and your level of commitment to all the people that you’re privileged to be with. I use the approach of the servant leader because I think we are privileged as leaders to serve.
A personal mission statement translates also into a team or corporate mission statement. The team or corporate mission statements should describe, “who are we, what do we do and why do we do it?” And I’ve provided some examples, again, going back to the Shameless Book Promotion but I provide some examples in my book. And I would also offer to any of you if you’d like to explore that idea further of having a personal mission statement. You can get a hold of me and I’d be glad to have that conversation or even perhaps help you work through one of your own and I’ll be happy to share mine with you as well.
Awesome. I completely agree with the personal mission statement. That’s something I struggled through as a junior leader in the Army. I was asked to write one and when I first turned it in, it got raised eyebrows because I didn’t know what I was doing and I had never done it before. But through my career, it’s definitely been helpful and I hope to get continuously better at it. And then this question was, because we work on teams in our public policy class, like we have a client and we get on teams together at Duke Sanford, and a lot of those teams are made up of nothing but high functioning individuals, like dream teams.
And you go through those phases of ‘forming, storming, norming, performing,’ that all teams go through. But it does seem like sometimes a group of really good leaders put on a team don’t necessarily function as well as they thought they would. And in an organization where teams, as in the C-suite leaders and also the managerial positions below you, a lot of times you will work on projects and teams and I was just curious… how can you overcome some of those obstacles of good leaders not being able to function together and then if it doesn’t work out, how can that damage the organizational culture?
Well, it certainly can damage the culture. If high performing individuals come together and don’t perform well as teams, that’s going to damage the organization in a number of ways. As you know, Rob, I’m a fan of Patrick Lencioni. And he wrote a couple of books that I would recommend. One of them is “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and the other one is “The Ideal Team Player.”
The idea here is that high performing individuals can let their egos, can let the ‘me’ get ahead of the ‘us.’ And in a team setting, that’s destructive. Its destructive in a number of ways. Because when it’s all about ‘me’ … that attitude permeates into other members of the team, and causes people to immediately become defensive. Sort of like to fall back to, “what were you thinking” versus “what did we learn?” Lencioni addresses that in both of his books.
And I think one way to get at it, one tool for your toolbox… because I’m not very esoteric, folks, the right brain and left brain, that’s not part of my dynamic. In a team environment, one of the first things you do is establish a team covenant. And this covenant is usually an agreement. Well, it is typically the ones I’ve seen and worked with and teams I’ve been with. It’s basically the ‘rules of engagement’ to go back to our military experience of the team. And then everyone signs that covenant and dates it. And so then we’ve all made a commitment.
So like with the personal leadership philosophy I was talking about earlier… I signed and date my personal leadership philosophy because the signature lends more credibility to the level of commitment I have. And I would say the same thing in a team setting, establish a covenant, sign it and date it, and then hold each other accountable for it. The most powerful form of accountability is mutual accountability. It’s not top down. It’s cross… peers and colleagues and team members. That’s where real accountability lives.
So we did that in one of our classes, that was one of the requirements. We called it a team memorandum of understanding, I think. And we did kind of the covenant and we signed it as well and it’s been pretty effective. But out of curiosity or from your expertise, how often should that be visited once it’s created.
I would say you revisit it every time the team meets, every time a team meets. I’ve seen some cases where teams would take one of the agreements or one of the elements of the covenant, and essentially evaluate each other during the introductory part of their next team meeting. Now, it takes a level of courage to do that. And you also have to have a level of vulnerability that you’re willing to demonstrate. Lencioni talks about that as well. If you’re not willing to be vulnerable, then I don’t think you’re going to be very successful as a team member.
And, again, we go back into that, you put all high performing individuals into a team environment. And if they’re not going to demonstrate any vulnerability or make a high level of commitment, then they’re not going to be successful as members of the team.
And speaking of vulnerability, I wanted to address micromanagement too. It seems like a lot of leaders, maybe they get burned once or maybe they’re just not comfortable being vulnerable, but they seem like the failure to empower your subordinates in an organization can lead to a damaging culture. I was just curious, your thoughts on this? I know there’s no perfect science for the appropriate metric of micromanagement versus empowerment, but how can you improve the culture through empowering your subordinates?
Well, one of my favorite tools is the decision tree. When I go into an organization in a leadership role, it is one of the first things I do, in addition to providing people with my personal mission statement, and my personal leadership philosophy, is to have a one on one with each of my direct reports about that particular document and what it means. But the decision tree I established early on, and basically I write a list… “these are decisions that I make, the rest of them are yours.”
So, I don’t write 40 things that they decide. I write four or five things that I must decide. And the rest of the operation of the organization folks, “you got it, saddle up.” And it’s interesting to see what happens when you do that because people go, they’re sort of like the old shock and awe theory. They all go, “wow, aren’t you going to tell me what to do?” “Well, no, I’m not. I’m going to tell you what decisions I’m going to make and then I’m going to expect you all to collaborate and cooperate and figure out how to do the rest.”
And sort of like the old… we learned in the military how to set it as the mission, the intent, our values, our culture. And I’ve seen a lot of leaders that develop the commander’s intent on a fly-by and people said, okay, this is my intent.
As long as we’re operating within that intent, why are you coming to me and ask me what to do? Move out and draw fire. And if you make a mistake, okay.
We’ve got to allow people to make mistakes. We’ve got to have a culture where people can learn. We learn, right, what did we learn? And that’s where I think the decision tree can really start moving the needle in that direction.
And then with that level of empowerment, I do like that decision tree quite a bit. And as somebody gets to make some of those decisions as opposed to being told what to do all the time, have you seen in cultures where that promotes kind of a full buy-in or a “We’re All In” cultural mentality where people are part of the organization because they feel like they’re valued?
Absolutely. I mean, to me, a ‘level five’ culture of ‘all in’ is one where everyone feels valued. They feel like what they’re doing, their personal mission and what they’re doing every day, directly contributes to the larger mission, the greater mission of the organization.
John C. Maxwell talks about it in his book on level five leadership. His ‘level five leader’ was coach John Wooden of UCLA, the men’s basketball team back in the late ’60s, early ’70s.
Their team won the national championship, I want to say, five times in seven years. They won the national championship because they were all in. They were totally committed to the team’s goals and objectives. And Wooden was a level five leader because people followed him because of who he was and what he represented. And not just because he was the coach, and could tell them what to do.
I felt the same way about General Crosbie Saint and General Colin Powell, that I had the privilege of serving with and getting to know them personally, just a wonderful privilege in my life. They were level five leaders, absolutely. And the culture they created was one where we were all in. We did what we needed to do to the best level we could do it because we wanted to.
Then I have one final question before we go to the question and answer portion of this, but I save this one for last because it’s, for lack of a better term, it’s gross. So there’s a lot of talk about toxicity and toxic workplaces, toxic cultures and it’s been prevalently communicated in the military, civilian sector and US society as a whole… as we collectively have tried to get away from that. So, when you step into an organization for the first time or for a week or so or a month, whatever the timeframe is, how can somebody identify if a culture is toxic and then what are some of the symptoms of a toxic culture?
Well, one of them is in the way that you have that introductory session with your boss, how that conversation goes, I think that’s a key indicator. Another one is in the level of positivity or negativity. You notice the people around you. Are people smiling? Are they positive? Are we a learning organization or more of a dictatorial environment where people are just sort of hunkering down, see what happens next? You can see it also in the level of communication and whether or not they share information or they communicate. To me, a ‘reply all’ culture is not helping, that’s where toxicity lives. “I forwarded you that email, so you must know what the hell is going on”
Well, that’s just a totally shallow approach to communication and to sharing information and knowledge. So, it doesn’t take a whole lot of indicators before you can begin to connect the dots here. The toxicity is really based in negativity and in a poor listening environment where people interrupt each other, where people don’t ask powerful questions. Those indicators to me are, they’re like lightning bolts that flash — this culture has a real toxicity in here, and we need to watch out. I need to tread carefully here. And that’s not going to be healthy. Most people don’t want to be in a toxic environment. And if they can, they vote with their feet.
All right. Those are all the questions I had. I really appreciate the discussion on organizational culture. And I’ll pass it over back to James to manage the raised hands for the Q&A session.
Okay, Rob, thanks.
All right. The first question comes from Mark.
Hey, sir, thanks for your time and lending us your expertise today. And thanks, Rob, for moderating this discussion. Really appreciate both of you guys’ time. I want to build on Rob’s last question about entering into a toxic work environment. As undergrads, most of us who aren’t returning to the military are getting ready to go to an internship, where we’re not allowed to vote with our feet, because we’ve got to complete that bit of work as well. And some of us are getting ready to go to consulting firms or to nonprofit organizations. And we’re really depending on that first couple of paychecks to pay off these student loans.
But other than voting with your feet, and I agree that leadership is contagious, as well as toxicity is contagious, what advice would you give us as newcomers into an organization to help steer away from that toxic culture and rather improve the situation for everybody? What can we do with our colleagues and our superiors alike?
Well, thanks, Mark. First thing I would say is reflect positively in yourself, your mannerisms, your questions, your behavior reflect positivity. Second, listen, seek first and listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply. And just because others don’t demonstrate that tendency doesn’t mean they won’t and can’t learn from you. So you can begin to affect others by your positivity, by your curiosity, and your willingness to listen.
The second is you’re not going to cure world hunger or anything else in the first 30 or 45 days of a relationship in an organization. So, be realistic. Understand that most of these people have been doing it for a while what they’re doing and they have an established culture. And in some ways, you’re an intruder into that environment. So you want to be, I think, receptive to who they are and what they represent and be willing to learn. And don’t make the decision in the first 18 minutes that you need to reform everyone in what they do. They’re not going to appreciate it. They’re not going to be receptive to it. And your learning opportunity is going to be diminished as well as theirs.
So, put yourself in their shoes. What I would encourage you to do in the first few days of your internship, seek to understand. They may have a way of looking at things and doing things that are very different than yours but it could also be very effective. And you could learn and grow from that experience. So, that’s what I would say, going in the door, have your ears open.
All right, thank you. The next question is from Matt.
Thanks, sir. I’m going to echo Mark’s comments here. Just thank you for your time tonight and sharing some insight with us. I want to ask a little bit about your experience. You’ve got a lot of experience in the military, over 30 years of service, commanded at the highest level. And then you’ve had a chance to see leadership from a little bit different perspective, gaining some insight into what corporate leadership looks like. So I’m still in the military, getting ready to go take command here this summer here at Fort Bragg.
But I’m curious, if you had a chance to go back to your time in the military, is there anything you would do differently or is there anything that you saw as you started coaching senior executives that you’re like, “man, I wish I had done that more frequently (or been more intent about it) while I was in the service?”
Excellent question, Matt. There are several things I would change, and we don’t have enough time to go through all the things that I would probably go back and fix when I was a soldier. What I learned in my corporate journey, both inside companies as an executive and now working with some knowing enough to be dangerous in the consulting part of my world. What I’ve learned from a lot of the corporate executives that I’ve been with is that I don’t think I was humble in the military. We were all about, I guess, ‘being the standard’ more than we were being a listening and learning leader. At least I don’t think I was.
I think I was far too directive and not inclusive enough. And many of the corporate executives that I’ve come to really respect and admire, they understand the idea of inclusivity. They understand the idea of building organizations where “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.” If you think about that old adage, that’s powerful stuff. And I could have been a whole lot more tolerant than I was and a whole lot more caring than I probably exuded. And I would go back and change that — if I could lose 25 pounds and I get some more, a little bit more hair here and still do 50 pushups — but you know that I can’t go back and do that, but I would if I could.
Great, thank you.
The next question is from James H.
Okay. Hi, James.
Good day, sir. Thanks so much for your time today. This is a little bit touching on something you talked about a little bit earlier in the chat and specifically the importance of communication, like in true communication in person and versus, unfortunately, via Zoom and Skype and how we have to do them. But given the advent from work from home, how have you seen organizations effectively promote communication without adding to the Zoom, Skype drain that a lot of us have kind of felt.
And more specifically looking at… You look on social media or anywhere, the LinkedIn, you’ve seen a lot of forums and horror stories about the mental strain and drain. This is something we’ve had a look at for the past year that we haven’t really had to been forced to do recently.
Well, the world has changed for good in the last 15 months. And we’re now talking about a hybrid culture which I think is probably going to be here to stay in many professions. In some industries, it’s got to be tactile, hands off, like in several companies. I work with manufacturing companies and they can’t convert to robotics fast enough to keep their customers happy, so they’re in a tactile environment. Other ones and the service industries can do more remote association, at least virtual.
I would say you need to establish what I call FARs. I’ll be a little crude here. I’ve always established FARs wherever I’ve gone… and those are what I call ‘Flat-Ass Rules.’ And one of the Flat-Ass Rules is in the hybrid environment is that we’re not going to make hallway decisions with only the people who were in the hallway here or going by the hallway because they’re in the office. There is a bias for proximity that’s going on here — and another shameless promotion I’ll share is that I write a blog every other week. And that was a topic of one of my blogs: this proximity bias.
We need to be very careful that we don’t have those who are ‘present for duty’ inside building be the decision makers and influencers at the expense of those who are not inside the building. And in many cases, people can’t or won’t come into the building anytime in the future, but they’re still capable of being as productive or more productive than they probably were when they were in the office… because they weren’t hanging out around the coffee pot as much, for one thing.
So, one of the things and techniques I’ve seen used recently is that “we don’t make hallway decisions in this company.” If there’s a policy issue or challenge that we happen to be conversing about out here in the common area, we get the people involved who are not here physically in virtual engagement for discussion here about that policy before we go and change it.
In other cases, your FARs would need to include certain hours of day when you make yourself available. Now, say, Rob, we’ve got these challenges come up here on our PTO policy that we kind of need to converse about and I don’t think it can wait until tomorrow. And you’ve said that normally between three and four, four and five, whatever the time is, you’re going to make yourself available for a, “hey, you” Zoom, if there’s a decision or policy issue that we need to talk about. And I think that can be part of your FARs and people will understand and accept that. You can’t have everything on a scheduled basis.
Now, there is a factor called Zoom fatigue that I’m very cognizant about because many of my workshops over the last year have converted from in person to virtual. And I would say if you’re going to have a meeting that’s longer than an hour, you need to have a darn good reason why… because people hit Zoom fatigue pretty quickly.
Another tool that I would put out there for you consider it, to think about putting in your toolbox is: don’t put decision meetings (or meetings at all) back to back to back. You have no time to prepare for the next meeting… and so, by the third meeting, you are a zombie. You’re a Zoom zombie! And you’ve gone to that layout whether you’re standing there and you try and get your face off the screen sometimes, but you’re just not effective.
So, be deliberate in your schedule, be inclusive in your decision making, and establish FARs that everybody understands and can live with and I think they’ll help you get through it.
All right. Thank you, sir. The next question comes from Jenna.
Hi. First of all, thank you so much for your time today. My question is, I don’t come from a military background. I’m not a veteran. I’ve never served in the military. But this past semester, I have been working with a course called Human-Centered Design. And we’ve been working with care in the community at the VA here in Durham. And then this coming semester, I will be working again with the VA. Our project is still to be determined but I wanted to solicit your advice in terms of someone coming from not a military background, what is the best way to incorporate into the organization, as well as just be the most effective version that we can be, well, for working?
Well, if you’re serving with the VA, Jenna, good for you, because you’re making a difference. And I’m now a patient at the VA clinic here… where I’ve never been involved with the VA to the level I should have been throughout my career. But I’m starting to now finally learn more about it. I think Veterans Administration is made up of a whole lot of men and women who want to do the right thing. They want to serve veterans and their families in a caring way. And I think if you demonstrate, Jenna, that you care, and I talked earlier about that. I said, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.”
If you demonstrate the fact that you really care and you want to learn and be part of the solution, people will respond to that in the VA, or any organization. They’re going to respond to people who are ‘all in’ and who go in the door with that attitude. That you’re here to learn and you’re here to help make a difference; “put me in, coach.”
Okay, thank you.
And then the next question is from Adam.
General, sir, how are you doing? Thank you so much for being here this evening. I have a question that kind of revolves around organizational culture change. I’ve been in situations before, I think most of us have on this call, with our military background where you’re trying to institute a new initiative, something you’re trying to change within the organization, but we hit the obstacle of junior leaders that may or may not have that buy-in, right? This is the folks that think, hey, the status quo is fine, let’s keep going the way it is. I can just wait you out. How do you handle that kind of… those obstacles at the junior level and really try to incorporate and inculcate their buy-in?
Well, first of all, I would say — and probably you’re not going to like this answer — but it takes time. Corporate organizations, they don’t have to wait until my boss PCS (Permanent Change of Station), this kind of opportunity. I worked for a couple of people in the Army that I really did not have any fun working for, and they probably didn’t enjoy me either. But ultimately, they moved on, or I moved on and we found the solution there. In a lot of companies, that’s not the case.
So, they can’t vote with their feet for a number of reasons. And I would encourage you to, again, reflect positivity in your attitude and behavior. And understand that it may take some time before it rubs off on them, if it’s going to. I really like the one-on-one communication venue. I’ve used it a lot in my corporate experience; I don’t think I did nearly enough in the military.
But when you can get a colleague or a peer one-on-one, and actually have a conversation where the cellphone has been put away and the computer screen is turned aside, you can actually learn from each other and understand more about putting yourself in their shoes, and why do they feel that way? Why are they resisting the opportunity for change, or to have our culture, have our ecosystem, become healthier and less toxic.
And so, I think that dialogue will begin to influence them and it’s going to take some time and you got to be deliberate about it. If you’re just going to use hope as a method and figure out if you’re going to get chance to talk once every three months or so, that’s not going to be good enough. It’s not. You’re going to have to be a deliberate influencer of others and establish engagement opportunities that you’re going to create. And then go in there with a positive, curious approach to learn more about who they are and what they represent.
And you’re going to find, that they’re going to learn more about who you are and what you represent. And your influence level is going to go up, because they’re going to know that you are curious, you actually do care about what they think. And you actually do want to learn from them. And that’s how you get that buy in, that trust level goes up. Trust has to be earned. I don’t think you can just allocate it. You have to earn it and it’s hard work. It’s really hard work.
I think we have a follow-on question from Matt.
Yeah, thanks, James. I actually just want to expand on Adam’s question that I think he brings up a great point. The crux of the question is, how much time do you spend working on the team, versus working as part of the team? And maybe a little bit cynical here, but I think it’s easy when we step back and we think about leadership to say, hey, here’s the things that we need to do to have a cohesive team, build a healthy culture. In practice, I think a lot of times the deadlines continue to approach and you get really focused on the output of the product of the team, as opposed to the cohesiveness or the health of the organization.
And sometimes I think what happens is: those people that aren’t entirely bought in, they get left behind. And you mentioned John Maxwell earlier, I think he said, you spend 90% of your time on the top 10% of your people if you want to build ‘level five’ leaders. But what’s your thoughts on that, just how much time you spend working on the team versus as part of the team, really focused on the deliverable or the product.
It’s hard to allocate, Matt, a level of energy here. And I’m not trying to be a ‘formula hound’ here, I’m just trying to say that working on the team has to be part of working in the team. So, I’m waffling a little bit here. But I always felt like, first of all, the smaller teams were more effective than bigger ones. So if you can affect the size of the team, that helps a lot. And I think that science indicates that teams that are larger than about six people, six to eight, truly become dysfunctional rapidly because one or two thoroughbreds lead the charge for everybody else, and the rest of them are just kind of wandering back there in the back of the pack.
The second part in working both with and on the team, Matt, is that I think you have to have a division of labor that’s fairly equal if you can. And part of that covenant is we share the responsibility for each of the tasks the team has been allocated or given. And we have deliverables that people are assigned or expected to maintain. And I go back to that mutual accountability idea again.
Matt, if you’re not going to a meeting with Rob and Jenna, and they’ve brought in their products they were supposed to bring in there, and you’ve done like 10%, and I’ve done almost zero, I think we should be accountable for that. And it shouldn’t be the fact that now, the other two warhorses are going to ride off and carry our workload and theirs.
We’ve all been in organizations where people, they just sort of bump along and we continued to pay them, in some cases, promote them, and in other cases, reward them… and they weren’t really caring enough. That’s where that covenant comes in, Matt. I think that covenant is fundamental. It’s got to be upfront and then there’s got to be an accountability that the team holds themselves and each other too.
All right. I see no further questions. So, if it’s okay, I’ll take the last question here myself.
So, I guess, thank you for your time. I’m interested in the pivot and the, we talked about the similarities and how some of the things translate over from military application to the corporate world or whatever. But could you just briefly talk kind of in the opposite terms of like, hey, here are things you may want to leave behind, leave your past behind you, leave those in that world when you transition to this world. What are the things we should leave behind as we move forward?
Well, I think one of the things that… there’s probably three things I would say, James, to leave behind. One is you have to leave behind the idea that everybody has some specified rank in the organization that they wear on their sleeve, or it’s on their helmet or something, that we treat people, or at least we approach people, based on what their rank is on their uniform. You really can’t do that in the corporate world. It just doesn’t work.
You’ve got to be ‘Robert.’ I can’t remember the last time I introduced myself as ‘General.’ I really can’t.
Because, first of all, people respect that, and God bless America, people are very respectable to veterans of whatever rank and positioned we’ve held. But that doesn’t define me. At least, I hope it doesn’t.
Rob probably called me out here, but I don’t want to be defined by my military rank. I want to be defined by personhood, as the term goes here.
Secondly, the second thing I’d leave behind is: leave behind the fact that people are going to always wait for you to tell them what to do or wait for orders and instructions. The people you want to be around are not going to wait for instructions. They’re going to move out. And so, you should be supportive of that attitude and not go, “okay, James, who put you in charge here.” When you see somebody taking initiative, that’s usually a healthy thing. And you got to get behind that and not look for “whose job was it to do this” per se.
The third element that I had learned to leave behind the hard way was that people were automatically going to come into a meeting whether for information or decision. And the decision that was rendered at that decision meeting, right? Everybody would go out the room, and immediately act on that decision as if it were their own. That’s not the case, they’re not going to do that. In many cases, in my corporate experience, we ended a decision meeting by people going out and having another meeting, decide what they really want to do without me.
So, understand that influence is going to be harder. And the idea of everybody just pulling at the oars when the drum beats is not the way a lot of organizations operate. And it’s okay in a lot of organizations. They don’t have to actually put their shoulders to the wheel of the unified decision making process if they have some other agendas that might be healthy for the organization. That was hard for me to understand. So that’s the third element. I would say you have your ears open, like I talked about earlier, when you go in the door in your internship, or your next career in life in that regard.
All right, sir. Thank you so much for that. And just on behalf of the Duke Sanford Veterans Association and all the students and faculty here, I want to thank you for spending an hour with us.
So, again, thank you for your time and then I’ll leave it to you for just any parting shot, sir.
I enjoyed the session. And I hope y’all did too, got something out of it that you can use. And, Rob, thanks for inviting me to come join you all for the session. I certainly wish you well. And God bless and good luck to you in your journey ahead. Just make a commitment to serve those that you lead and are privileged to be with and I think you’ll enjoy the journey a whole lot more. Take care.
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