Big Red Car here on a glorious Friday. Well, actually, it’s rainy, but it is still Friday.
So, I was in conversation with a fellow graduate of Virginia Military Institute and we were discussing, of all things, the purpose of the VMI Rat Line.
Your first year at VMI, you are systemically challenged (akin to waterboarding, but who’s quibbling about technique) to learn how to be a cadet, absorb the military regimen, and study something like civil engineering. It is a hard row to hoe.
This is called the VMI Rat Line. Other places call it “torture.” It is a system which VMI has used since 1839 and they are not even considering changing it. About 2/3s of your class will survive it. Sometimes, only half. It makes Airborne and Ranger Schools seem a little tamer.
To which, my classmate posed the question: “Why?”
To which I answered, “To prepare novitiate Army officers to be able to make a multitude of decisions under pressure.”
He graded my answer at B+. I protested and he upped my grade to an A-.
Every CEO has to make a lot of decisions. One day in the midst of my 33 years of CEOing, I kept an index card upon which I made a check every time I made a decision from where to eat to how to allocate capital.
By the end of the day, I had covered one half of the index card and it hadn’t been a particularly difficult day. I also hadn’t been under a lot of pressure that particular day.
This gave rise to some thoughts which I captured thusly:
Then, I began to think about other environments.
When I was building high rise office buildings and renovating vintage buildings, I often had a day in which everything just went to Hell.
I would be dealing with the architect, the structural engineer, the MEP engineer, the City of Austin, the construction lender, some future tenants, foreign partners, the weather, the unions, the general contractor – who was in the midst of building the building at the rate of a floor every week, which is a very difficult schedule.
I had a feeling of deja vu. It was like being in the Ratline at VMI.
As a CEO, you will have such days. Unfortunately, as I often tell CEOs when they call me to discuss that burning sensation in their gut, it is normal.
In business, normal is not normal.
You have to be able to rise to the occasion and make decisions at the necessary rate to ensure your world is moving forward.
Life and death
There are some life and death situations, such as combat, which not only require you to make quick decisions, they better be good or people die when you screw up. You will have to write letters to their mothers or deliver the bodies. It is very serious.
As a military school, VMI is training to that standard. I remember with great clarity thinking – “Oh, shit. This is serious.”
One such occasion was watching a tank roll over a bridge and seeing it flip over. I had personally inspected that bridge and told the tank company commander to take the bypass and not to cross the bridge. I had marked the bridge with engineer tape indicating it was not rated for armor – M60 tanks.
Somehow, that word did not get distributed and we had a tank upside down in the arroyo. Not good.
My unit was the closest to the accident — I was on the side of a hill, sitting on my ass drinking the first hot cup of coffee I’d had in a week, watching the tanks move up the valley with my binoculars — so I sent some guys in a truck to extricate survivors and to render first aid. Made sure they took all of my company medics.
I called a medevac chopper as a backup. I got on the radio to the tank company commander and told him what happened. [I purposely didn’t call my battalion commander, or his, because we were both company grade officers. I knew this was going to get ugly and I wanted to give him a chance to do some self-help remedy.]
I suggested he call Division main and to have them tell the medics up there to expect incoming casualties.
Once the tank company commander got the message I told him, “I’m up here with my engineers. This is your mess. Let me know how I can help.”
He took charge. One guy killed (tank commander) and the rest of them banged up pretty bad. They all required medevac.
Because I had called right away, the medevac chopper was on the ground just as the tankers were extricated. Got stabilized and transported.
I made all those decisions in about twenty seconds. I had been trained to do that.
The dead tank commander was laid out and had a poncho draped over him. His presence haunted the spectacle. His head had gotten crushed and it was gory. Nothing firms things up like a dead body.
I made it a point not to go down there because a gaggle was building up. In another half hour, the assistant division commander was down there. There is nothing which calms things down like a pissed off general arriving when there are casualties and a tank upside down.
I had plenty to do, so I stayed up on my hill with my binoculars and watched.
Later that morning, a tank recovery vehicle came to recover the tank. It took half a day to turn the tank over and winch it onto the recovery vehicle.
An ambulance came to recover the body.
Then, I blew the bridge up so nobody else would make that mistake.
In business, few things rise to the level of life and death, but they may feel like it.
In my building days, I was building a respectable sized building in Austin By God Texas.
I remember a general contractor calling me and saying something on the plans wasn’t right and he was getting ready to “fly the forms” from the floor below (the one just placed) to the next floor and would be ready to “place” concrete in two days, but he couldn’t until I fixed the problem. The problem would preclude the timely placement. [Professionals never say “pour” concrete. They say “place” concrete. You pour whiskey, but you place concrete. May be a Corps of Engineers thing.]
I had to get with the architect, the engineer, the City of Austin (the problem had to do with something related to the fire protection system) and the sprinkler contractor. Meanwhile, the general contractor was telling me he wanted some ridiculous amount of money for every day of delay.
It was like the VMI Ratline.
I got all the conflicting input I could stuff into my brain, made a decision which would only satisfy some subset of the people involved, ran it back by everyone thereby validating that not everyone was happy, had the City of Austin notified, and then told the contractor what I wanted him to do.
Took about four hours for the entire process.
Unfortunately, that was a normal day for the high rise construction business when you are placing concrete for the frame. Normal was vacationing in Mexico.
So, what’s the teaching point, Big Red Car?
In a perfect world, we let things go from not urgent/not important to either urgent or important to urgent/important. That is a normal progression.
Try to make your decisions when things are neither urgent nor important. Easy decisions.
But, sometimes, things get dicey and you have to make decisions under pressure.
First rule — make a God damn decision. Not making a decision is often worse than a bad decision.
If you haven’t been though the VMI Rat Line borrow my experience. Just do it.