The board of directors and the investors in a company rarely get an opportunity to see a team function as a system, as a whole. They may become familiar with certain subsets of the team when they are in contact with the leadership and the management, but they rarely see the entire team working together and rarely without the team knowing they are watching.
When I work with a CEO, I sometimes get a chance to be a voyeur and watch the team functioning without the team being aware of my presence. This opportunity provides a keen and unique insight.
Today, I had such an opportunity. In this instance, I came away bowled over by the quality of the performance.
Here is what I observed:
1. As a complete process, the team operated at a high level of performance. They were demonstrably better than peer organizations.
2. The team was visibly interdependent and worked with each other. Clearly, this was neither novel nor unique to this day.
3. Looking at the individual team members, I would not have thought them remarkable, but as I watched them several things jumped out:
a. The team, at the individual level, was sympatico and had a native desire to work together.
b. Whoever had hired this team had done a fabulous job. I spent some time watching individual team members and across the board they were performers.
c. The team work was neither forced nor snarky. It was genuine and natural.
So, I spoke to the manager of the unit and we had a very nice chat. I quizzed him as to his hiring practices.
In a nutshell, he hired for attitude and talent initially, looked for experience secondarily, but — this is the big thing — he trained them for their position with the written word, with training demonstrations, by job shadowing/sharing with a more experienced team member, by gradual increases in responsibility, and through performance appraisal.
It was a tour de force and the leader who explained it to me was able to do it off the top of his head.
I have noticed that startups become real companies at the instant in time in which training becomes an internal force, and when they are able to effectively engage with their industry — by this I mean have company-sponsored contacts with their customers en masse like a convention or a conference. These are inflection points I see time and time again.
In the military, I was a stickler for training. Just before I went on active duty, my father (career soldier and recipient of a battlefield commission in WWII) had drummed into me that training was the responsibility of the unit commander. More importantly, that training correlated completely with combat performance and casualties. Poorly trained units paid for it with KIAs and bad mission performance. This accomplished several things:
When I personally trained soldiers, I got better at the subject because I had to master it at a deeper depth of knowledge. Here, I am talking about things like bridging rivers with floating rafts and bridges, building structures, and explosives (destroying structures). I always liked explosives training and heavy weapons training (I would eventually have mortars, CEVs (combat engineer vehicles, M60 tanks with a 120mm bunker busting gun), LAW (light anti-tank weapon) rockets, and recoil less rifles.)
I would create training materials that were more useful than those provided to me.
I was forced to create lesson plans and have them reviewed by superiors.
Not patient by nature, I learned to be patient and to accept/embrace the necessity for spaced-repetition-training. I realized that just because I thought I had taught the subject well, this did not mean anybody got it.
I learned to test and grade training, and to order re-training when the feedback loop filled with detritus.
This developed within me an appreciation that people can be trained to do anything if the training is focused, professionally organized, given with enthusiasm, tested, and the trainers and the trainees are held accountable.
When I had officers under me, I learned to supervise them doing the same thing.
After years of doing this, I recognized that the most elite units don’t necessarily have better raw material (not completely true, the combat engineer officers all had degrees in engineering), or better weapons, but they did have better training.
If your training base is ZERO — no training program, no training — then it is not hard to get better. If you have a fledgling program of training, it is also easy to get better by improving the training plan, the training materials, delivery system, and the post training assessment and accountability. It is also important to reward and advance those who are good trainers.
The Army in my day had something called the ARTEP — Army Training and Evaluation Program. When I had successfully commanded a company (186 combat engineers, millions of dollars of equipment, a fleet of dozers/front end loaders/graders/cranes/trucks/pioneer equipment, heavy weapons, a mess hall to feed them, and a barracks), I inherited a rats nest of a company that had failed its ARTEP for five years resulting in the dismissal and relief of two company commanders, a battalion commander, and an impending relief of a brigade commander. It was a high stakes situation.
The Commanding General of the post told me that that unit would pass its ARTEP or he would relieve everybody in the chain of command including me. Seemed a little unfair at the time, but that’s the way the Army operates.
I asked, “How much time to I have?”
“Not up to me. The inspectors come up from the Pentagon. They were last here six months ago.” So, being facile with numbers, I expected I had six months, so I gave myself four.
I fired the Training Sergeant and replaced him with a sergeant who had just come from Fort Leonard Wood, the combat engineering training center for enlisted men. I worked with him to develop a training program as follows:
1. Individual soldier skills,
2. Individual combat engineer skills,
3. Fire team skills,
4. Squad skills,
5. Platoon skills,
6. Company skills,
7. Special mission skills.
The individual soldier skills were things like marksmanship, personal hygiene, equipment maintenance.
The individual combat engineer skills were things like being able to run a certain piece of equipment (chain saws, mine detectors), preparing a particular explosive.
Fire team skills were things like working together to install or remove mines under real conditions — real mines. Blowing things in place, building things as part of a team. Buck sergeants run fire teams, so we were training buck sergeants as well.
Squad skills included things like tactical movement under fire (fire and maneuver) and using two teams to accomplish specific missions — building a timber trestle bridge capable of passing light truck traffic. Blowing up a light bridge. Staff sergeants run squads, so were were training them as well.
Platoon skills included building rafts for river crossing operations, attacking a hill with all squads performing supporting and complementary missions, building/destroying timber trestle bridges capable of holding two M60 tanks, constructing a blocking position and maintaining it at a significant terrain feature (bridge). The platoon was commanded by a second or first lieutenant, so this was a test of the officer and his platoon sergeant.
Company skills would include erecting a floating bridge, building a tactical operations center, installing/removing mine fields, building an airfield using PSP (perforated steel plate), and the company in the attack (ground and airmobile). The company is the smallest unit in the Army in which its constituent units (platoons) may fight out of eye contact with the commander and with only radio contact. It is also the lowest unit in which the unit itself may be required to provide its own fire support (mortars) or to liaise with higher units for fire support (mortars, indirect fire artillery, helicopter, and air support). This was really on me. I was the company commander.
In addition, the company is expected to be able to work as part of the parent battalion on larger assignments, such as bridging the Rhein River to cross a division, corps, or army in Germany.
This is a very top-of-the-mind list; the actual list would take several more pages, but what I want you to see is how the next level of skill builds on the lower skill — a soldier who cannot fire his weapon effectively cannot contribute to “company in the attack.”
In a business setting, I find very few companies who are doing this kind of step-by-step, increasing skill level, and increasing work unit size training. I have found some. In every instance, these companies — the ones who do that level of training — are crushing it.
I worry where a business person is going to learn this notion of training. I see big companies with formal training programs, but I don’t see many companies who have an effective program of training in the 25-100 employee range.
This lower level is where training may create a killer organization because it doesn’t take much improvement in performance to create an enormous “execution advantage.”
If you are a CEO, take a minute and ask yourself — What am I doing to create execution advantage through training?
If the answer is: “Not a damn thing!” start small, start slow, but start. The Special in Special Forces is the training.
When I finished watching and evaluating this team, I spoke with the leader and it was apparent that he was the driver of their excellence — one man who knew what he was doing and did it. I think there are a myriad of such opportunities to drive companies to their highest level of performance.
How did that unit I re-trained work out? They had the highest grade in the US Army that year — 100% — I got a medal (Meritorious Service Medal, usually given to field grade officers in those days), I got a blazing OER (officer evaluation report), and I was promoted (I would have been promoted anyway unless I failed in which case I would likely have been kicked out of the Army as part of the post Vietnam War Era drawdown.), and I was headed to a plum assignment. Shortly thereafter, I decided I wanted to try something different and resigned my commission, but I was on the fast track.
Training. It’s what really good companies do. Try it.
Team performance, the key to team performance, is held hostage to the quality and level of training. Want to improve performance? Do more training.
Now, don’t just jump into it. Remember, crawl, walk, run — but get moving.
But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car. Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Be well.