I want to talk to you about building a team and an experience that I had an awful long time ago that stuck with me throughout my career.
In 1972, I graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. As a young, single officer, I did what most young, single guys would do. They gave us 60 days of leave, so I took off to go to Hawaii, catching rides on Air Force cargo planes across the United States and across the Pacific.
As I was heading across the Pacific, I got on a C5A— an enormous cargo aircraft. You actually have to climb a ladder to get up to the passenger compartment on top of this big bay, where they would put vehicles and all kinds of cargo.
So as we took off from Travis Air Force Base, heading for Honolulu, it’s about a 5-6 hour flight. I settled in my seat, sitting next to a Navy corpsman. Now what’s a Navy corpsman? A Navy corpsman is a medic. Basically in the Army he or she would be assigned to a unit to provide immediate medical support. In this particular case, this young Navy corpsman was assigned to a Marine unit and he was headed back to his unit in Honolulu.
Well, it’s a long flight. Tell you the truth, there’s no movies on an Air Force plane. There’s no alcohol. The meal was a boxed lunch and wasn’t too great. So I struck up a conversation with this young guy. Here I am a brand new second lieutenant about to learn an invaluable lesson from a more experienced enlisted man.
I asked him, “How’s your unit?” He said “Well, it’s pretty good. I’m in a Marine rifle company there in Honolulu. But we got a new company commander, this Captain. And boy, this guy is a real jerk... but I took care of him.”
Now folks, I’m pretty old, so if you think back to about 1972, still in the midst of the Vietnam War, if an enlisted man said to an officer (or to anyone) that they ‘took care of’ an officer, that could have an awful lot of meanings. All of which would have been really, really bad.
So I somewhat gingerly said to him, “Well, what did you do?”
He looked at me and said, “It was easy. I just lost his shot records.”
Now for those who don’t know, if you’re assigned overseas, particularly in the Pacific, you have to get an enormous amount of inoculations, so if you’re called upon to deploy to some obscure place on some obscure island in the Pacific you’re protected from whatever diseases might be rampant.
I can remember going through long lines of GIs when I entered the military and literally getting four shots at one time. One in each shoulder and the other two, I’ll let you figure out where those two locations were as I was going along with my buddies.
So losing the shot records meant you had to start all over again and get those shots all over again which is what this Captain had to do.
So then this young corpsman went onto say “You know what I did then?”
I said “No, what’d you do then?”
He said “I just lost those damn shot records again, and you know what, that Captain is starting to come around. He’s starting to figure out that he’s not the only important person in the company. Everybody’s got an important job to do and everybody’s important.”
And that stuck with me throughout my entire career. Everybody on the team is important. Now how do I think about that when building a team? Let me give you a couple thoughts on how you might translate that into action and avoid someone losing your shot record.
Use some form of feedback or After Action Review.
People on your team will always think you know more about what’s going on than THEY do. And they may even think you know more about what’s going on than YOU do, but you need to give them some feedback.
Ensure the team knows what are recoverable vs. non-recoverable mistakes.
What are the things, that frankly, are going to get you fired?
Identify your core values.
Make sure to identify the values of both you and the organization.
Get to know the hopes and desires of the team.
If you violate someone’s trust, work it out quickly.
Deliver on all agreements or explain why not (build idiosyncratic credits).
Be clear about expectations.
Take responsibility for your mistakes and be willing to ‘take one for the team’, be their heat shield.
Realize what you say in the inner circle will always reach the outer circle.
Deal with the source of the problem. You may need to ‘eat a frog’ first thing in the morning.
A very wise old soldier, far wiser than I, once summarized this pretty well with a short poem. In 1965, General Dwight Eisenhower was returning to Europe as part of the 20th anniversary of the end of WWII. He was traveling by ship. One evening he met in the large lounge of the ship to give a talk to the other passengers on the vessel about his experiences during the war. He ended that particular talk with the following poem...
“The moral of this quaint example is to do just the best that you can. Be proud of yourself, but remember, there is no indispensable man.”
Keep that in mind building your team, and make sure you don’t lose your shot records.
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