Strong organizations build a deep bench for leadership

Army leadership lessons for industrial manufacturers to improve efficiency and productivityWeb Ex 2 sept/oct main

By Chad Storlie

During my first six years in the U.S. Army, I was a member of four different battalions (around 700 soldiers organized into four subunits) and a member of two combat arms branches; I evaluated leaders from six different battalions and went across the U.S. and the world. Military training taught me that the commander, the senior officer in charge of a military organization, was the most important person to look at to judge and to evaluate the quality of a unit. However, even my limited experience taught me that the real strength of an organization is three-to-four levels from the top. Junior leaders in any organization make an organization great or lead it to its eventual downfall.

The breadth of experience so early in my military career taught me to look deep into an organization when evaluating how good it is. Of course, being wrong several times also helped me appreciate the leaders three-to-four levels from the top as the real sources of strength in an organization. During one of my first evaluations of another military unit in Korea, I was sure that the organization I was evaluating was a dud. The senior commander was bookish, not very fit, and not Ranger qualified, a sin for a combat arms officer in the U.S. Army. Ranger School was, and is, that nine-week U.S. Army experience where you sleep less than two hours a night-most soldiers lose 20-25 pounds, and combat veterans frequently state that Ranger School is harder than combat.

As I evaluated my unit three levels below the commander, it was far from awful; the personnel were awesome. They maintained their equipment, had good standard procedures, were excellent marksmen, planned well, and took care of each other. So, even though Army training stated that the commander was the most important person, it was the leaders three-to-four levels below him who made the organization a success. This example, reinforced everywhere I went, convinced me that the only way to build a great organization is to build, maintain, and continuously develop junior leaders. This insight is incredibly valuable for business as it seeks to simultaneously improve product quality, reduce costs, grow, and offer a better customer experience.

Corporate lesson #1: Scrap your traditional leadership development programs

Companies love their leadership development programs, because they are a recruiting tool that the company can vocalize. Companies need to scrap, throw away, and cancel these traditional programs. They do not create the leaders that companies need. Instead, companies need to use coaching, distance learning, and special projects to improve vast numbers of leaders at the same level. Companies must abandon the great leader concept and embrace the great leaders concept. Developing a large base of junior leaders is how companies find and maintain success.

Corporate lesson #2: Set up a low-level job rotation program to grow knowledge

Too often, a company finds a great junior employee and holds that employee in his or her current position for years longer than it should. A great addition to a large lower-level leadership program is to create and enforce a lower-level leader rotational program to distribute experience, new skill development, leadership aptitude, and greater knowledge of the company. Rotational programs that last six-to-nine months are an excellent way to develop new leaders, distribute best practices, and build retention in proficient junior leaders by giving them new skills.

Corporate lesson #3: Create innovation programs from the bottom up

Some companies believe that the best innovation comes from the bottom where the organization usually comes closest to customers, operations, problems, or the influence of competitors. Companies need to have a formal innovation program that is structured and web- and mobile-enabled to feed and develop the new ideas, vote on their development, and then put them into pilot programs followed by full implementation if they are successful. Making junior leaders responsible for innovating new ideas at their current levels prepares them to be great future leaders at higher levels of the organization.

Corporate lesson #4: Reward initiative and great customer experience

Giving junior leaders and junior teams the right, the attitude, and the belief that they can and should act independently and act with initiative to identify and solve company and customer problems is one of the most important skill sets for junior leaders. I can teach someone Excel, data analytics, and business statistics with relative ease. I cannot teach someone initiative, nor can I teach someone to care about customers. Business skill sets can be taught later in a career. Business beliefs in initiative, in the value of customers, and in the value of others cannot be taught in the future. Initiative toward solving problems and delivering great customer experience is what companies need in junior leaders.

Set about to build a great company. At every level, look past the CEO, CMO, and CFO to the managers and team leaders who truly execute the company strategy and build the company culture of excellence. Look to the future to set your path ahead and then look down three levels to build a great team of junior leaders.

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About the Author

Chad Storlie is the author of two books, Combat Leader to Corporate Leader and Battlefield to Business Success. Storlie’s message is that organizations and individuals need to translate and apply military skills to business, because they immediately produce results and are cost effective. Storlie is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces lieutenant colonel with more than 20 years of active and reserve service in infantry, special forces, and joint headquarters units. He served in Iraq, Bosnia, Korea, and throughout the U.S. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantry Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Special Forces Tab, and the Ranger Tab. Storlie is an adjunct lecturer of marketing at the University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management. In addition to teaching, he is a midlevel marketing executive and has worked in marketing and sales roles for various companies, including Union Pacific, General Electric, Comcast, and Manugistics.

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