Training again, Big Red Car? Really?
OK, dear reader, we will have one last crack at training for the CEO. Promise.
Today, we discuss Baron von Steuben. You know the Baron, right? Drillmaster of Valley Forge, no?
Get this book by Paul Lockhart. Great read. Been around for some time and it is a great book to inspire a CEO.
Big Red Car, who is Baron von Steuben?
Baron von Steuben [Big Red Car prefers the more Prussian “von” rather than the anglicized “de.”] was a fraud. He was rumored to have been a Major General in some European army, but the truth seems to be that he was a combat experienced, Prussian Captain out of work for about fifteen years when he secured passage to the Colonies with an eye toward throwing in with the Americans in revolt against the Brits.
What he turned out not to be was not as important as what he did. He whipped the Continental Army and the attendant militias into a European style army capable of maneuvering on the battlefield against the British. In a single winter, he remade the army. Which proves the sentiment that any Captain worth their weight could train an army if it came to that.
He trained them thereby instilling soldierly confidence at the rifleman level, organized and balanced units at the platoon, battalion, and regimental level while providing the basis for senior officers to meet, maneuver against, and engage with the British with equal competence and deadliness.
What kind of training, Big Red Car?
It seems obvious, but when a column of troops is moving down a road looking for the enemy — a movement to contact — they move in a route march formation (column of platoons) which is effective for quick movement. No sooner do they encounter the enemy than they must morph into a line formation to get into the fight.
Von Steuben taught the Continentals how to conduct themselves as standard sized platoons — 50 men — and to go from a column of platoons in three files on the march to a line of platoons facing the enemy in two ranks of twenty-five men each. Long thin column transformed into a battle line facing the enemy on the double quick. With this formation, the Continentals could fire, reload, advance or withdraw based on the tactical situation. While advancing, the artillery could fire over their heads, and the cavalry could guard their flanks.
This maneuver had to be conducted quickly to ensure the Brits didn’t take the disorganized Americans under cannon fire and destroy them before they could get organized. It was the mark of a professional army to be able to make such an instantaneous transformation. Prior to von Steuben showing up, the Americans could not do this. After that winter, they could do it perfectly. That is the benefit of training.
Today, we would find it laughable to suggest that American soldiers could not instinctively make such a transformation. Then, the Continentals were a rabble and had no standard sizes amongst their units, no individual soldier drill or manual of arms, and no ability to move large units to engage the Brits.
All of this learning was captured and codified in a Drill Manual which was the US Army’s bible until 1812.
OK, Big Red Car, how does this pertain to today?
For a CEO, training has to be part of the program to build a company. You have to be able to meet contemporary standards in things such as marketing and sales. You have to be or find your Baron von Steuben, to teach your team to do basic things well.
You have to write it down, document it, revise it, and train to to it. It is that simple.
Let me take one last swipe at Valley Forge. Washington went into winter camp with a beaten army. Poorly shod, poorly uniformed, poorly fed, unpaid, and at the verge of being beaten. Lots of desertions and disease. Militia men going home at the end of their term of enlistment. He had 10,000 men living in log huts they constructed. They were tired, hungry, and had low morale. The Brits were waiting out the winter in Philadelphia intending to quash the rebellion in the spring.
Along comes von Steuben. Von Steuben had pitched his case with Ben Franklin in Paris who sent him along to the Colonies.
Washington had a mutiny amongst his senior officers on his hands. Two or three were plotting with the Congress against Washington. He also had an untrained rabble which was really not an army. He meets von Steuben and gives him a temporary appointment to do some training. Why not? How could things get worse?
Von Steuben trains the trainers and sets up a system whereby he trains men from every unit and sends them back to train their units before returning to von Steuben’s tutelage to be trained as organized units. He standardizes the size and organizations of units so when Washington decides to commit a “battalion” he knows exactly how many men are going to show up.
Washington recognizes what he has in von Steuben and appoints him a Major General of the Continental Army. BRILLIANT MOVE, easily one of the top couple of decisions of the entire Revolution. [Hey, CEOs, always hiring? Always talent spotting?] He makes von Steuben a MG on the same day he learns the French have thrown in with the Colonies and will support them against the Brits. That was the moment at which the tide turned though there was plenty of fighting left to be done.
This was a very controversial appointment as von Steuben was a foreigner. Nonetheless, Washington — a guy with a nose for talent, a talent for timing, and cojones — appoints the guy and says, “Make me an army which can fight the Brits in the spring.”
The rest is history. As part of that history, one has to ask — “How did the Colonies deserve someone as selfless, as brilliant, as prescient, as insightful, and as shrewd as George Washington?”
That is why you train your company, because the change can be monumental and nation building. Now go figure it out.
But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car. [BRC is in the shop getting a new water pump and a bit of work on the carburetor. Initial indications are all good, but it is serious surgery, so say a prayer for the BRC.]