by Shannon Huffman Polson (aborderlife.com)
I took over personnel at 1-229th Aviation Regiment at the same time our battalion commander changed command. The new commander took over and called all of us into his office. He opened his file drawer and pulled out all his files, and divided them up among the staff officers standing in his office.
I was lucky enough to work for a few great leaders during my time in uniform, and then LTC Sales was one of them. All were very different. LTC Sales knew to delegate, to trust his people, to give them responsibility and the chance to shine. It also gave him the chance to do the more important things: walk around and spend time with the people doing the dirty work. This post is about why it’s important to delegate and prioritize, and what it means to take care of your people.
PRIORITIZING YOUR TIME=PRIORITIZING YOUR PEOPLE
This goes back to Part 1: the best use of your position is taking care of your people, which means spending time with them. You can't spend all day doing administrative work and still have time to lead, which is to say that management and leadership are not the same thing. Delegate, recognize your people for great work, develop your people to do great work, and spend time with your frontline leaders.
Delegating serves two important purposes. First, it conserves your energy and attention, freeing up your time and attention to spend time with the people on the front lines. Second, it gives your people a chance to learn, grow and shine.
As a platoon leader I learned the most from spending time with the people doing the dirtiest work. It was tempting to stay up in the company room with the pilots, but in the meantime I had a platoon of excellent junior enlisted mechanics making sure the aircraft stayed in the sky. At this most junior level of leadership, there isn’t a huge amount of delegating to be done; finding a way to do it all is part of the job, part of the learning process. Then it becomes something more about prioritizing time, making sure you focus on the time you have available with your soldiers.
The truth is I was intimidated by my soldiers. They certainly knew more about the mechanical aspects of a helicopter than I did, and many were even younger than I was, watched NASCAR, drunk (a lot of) beer, rode Harleys and listened to Rage Against the Machine. The mechanics' shop was a completely different world.
My conversations felt awkward and stilted. I forced myself to ask personal questions, and when that failed questions about the helicopter or the log books or the parts on order. As uncomfortable as these efforts were, over time I got to understand the helicopters better, and more importantly, the excellent soldiers that worked for me. It was the only way to know that paperwork had been lost for one of their promotions so that I could do the work to track it down, or that the sullen soldier just found out his wife was filing for divorce. Being willing to spend time with my soldiers, ask questions to get to know who they were was the only way to take care of them which, you remember, is rule number 1, the function of all leadership.
I was also lucky that my first platoon sergeant was truly outstanding and ran interference for me in some of those awkward moment, but he also let me do some of my own learning.
Delegating also lets people learn, and keeps them productively occupied if there is a reason that might be required. One lieutenant in Korea was not known for working with the pilots well, and spent no time to speak of in maintenance. When I came to the mid-point in my tour and was preparing for a month of leave, I was concerned about what would happen, especially in the dynamic between the lieutenant and a particular warrant officer.
There was a safety inspection on the schedule a month after I returned, and I put the lieutenant in charge of preparing for the inspection, a new area of responsibility that would require a significant investment in time and energy. I talked to the warrant officer separately, and asked if he would be a particular help in another area. Delegation then not only prepared the company for inspection, but occupied the energies of two toxic people in the company in different directions, ensuring their chemistry didn’t lead to a melt down.
While stationed in Korea, one of my soldiers, a corporal, who was one of my best soldiers in the company, had a girlfriend off post in the local community. This wasn’t against any rules, as long as he was back on post by curfew, since we were stationed in one of the northernmost posts in the country just ten kilometers south of the DMZ and it was considered both a safety and a security issue that all soldiers be on base after a certain time. Even during daylight hours, we signed off base and back in when we returned.
Soldiers are young, though, and one night he didn’t return. This is something different in the military from civilian life; leadership is a 24-7 responsibility, not all that unlike parenting. What soldiers do both on and off duty is your responsibility. I was flying nights then, so was still in bed when my first sergeant called early that morning and reported the soldier missing. Based on security requirements, we should have reported it immediately up the chain of command, but the first sergeant advised we wait. Instead we visited Mr. Park (There were a number of Mr. Parks on base. This one worked in the cultural heritage center and taught Hangul on Saturdays) and explained the situation, mentioning the bar where the soldier’s girlfriend worked. Mr. Park set off into the city.
Two hours later, he came back with the soldier in tow.
The soldier was not off the hook, even though we had not reported the incident up the chain of command. The first sergeant and I devised the strictest disciplinary action possible at the company level, and a series of orchestrated lectures and duties to indicate the severity of the offense. The soldier was docked pay and rank, all things from which he could recover. What might have happened had we reported it as required would have been far more severe. Not administering any consequences would not have been taking care of him.
Later another situation in the corporate world required taking action that was even more painful when it became clear than I had someone on my team who was in the wrong seat of the wrong bus. There were complicating factors including this person’s protected status by HR. In the Army, there’s a saying that there are no bad soldiers, only bad leaders, and this covers most cases, as long as the right people are sitting in the right seats…of the right bus. This person wasn’t. I increased her responsibility to test what seemed to be obvious, and the theory proved out. She came to me to give notice only weeks later. It would have been possible to let her languish, but the team was crippled by her low performance.
Helping people rise to meet that standard is part of good leadership. And helping them find the right fit for them is also part of taking care, even when part of that effort is difficult and uncomfortable.
It’s hard to learn each piece of this taking care. While planning a company level mission in Korea, I put a lieutenant in charge of route planning, thinking I was giving him the opportunity to shine. The problem was that I didn’t know what his capabilities were, and he was too new to know what he was doing yet. An hour into the planning process, a warrant officer came to me quietly and said: “Ma’am, I think the LT needs some help in the route planning.”
I had thought I was helping him learn, grow and be recognized for his own developing leadership, when in fact I had set him up for failure unless I trained him more completely first.
The corporate world is very different in some ways, but not so different in others. My first boss at Microsoft made a point to walk around and talk to all of us on his team. He had a big team, and he made the time. It's what we called "MWA," Management by Walking Around in the Army, also known as "Muddy Boots Leadership." I was not in a job I loved, and I was good at it but not excellent, but I was glad to be working with such great people. Everyone worked long hours, but I’m sure none of us worked more than my boss did. One day my dad and stepmom came to visit, and I had a quick breakfast with them on the campus cafeteria at 7 AM. My boss was there, as he was every morning at that time, and stopped to talk with them. Five months later they were both killed in an accident.
I will never forget the kindness my boss showed then. I thought I would have to quit work to take care of the few months of settling affairs. I’d only been working at the company for seven months. This is what my boss told me: “You have a blank check. You can come back to work next week if that’s what you need, or go home and do what you need to do and come back whenever you’re ready.”
If you want to develop loyalty in your people, know them, and take care of them the way he did. I came back after three months away. When I came back to work, he helped me find another position on the broader team that was a better fit for my skills where I could excel. I’m already a loyal person, but I would have walked through hell for him after that.
The thing to know about all of this is that the 2d rule of leadership, delegating and prioritizing, is still not about you. It’s about finding a way to best take care of the people working for you, even when it is uncomfortable, even when it’s not fun for anyone, but always ensuring you meet the interests of the soldier and the unit. When you take care of your people, they will take care of you.