Monday, March 06, 2006

10 Leaders Share Their Views On Leadership – Part III: “Passion” by Scott St. Germain

In Kelly Perdew’s book, “Take Command,” the third chapter is entitled “Passion: Be Passionate About What You Do, and Do What You’re Passionate About.”

As I thought about the many friends I know who have made the successful transition from military life to leadership in the business world, I began to consider those who strike me as particularly passionate about life and about their work. Scott St. Germain came to mind almost immediately. I first met Scott while he was pursuing his MBA at Harvard Business School. I had been challenged by a friend to make connections with the former military officers who were studying at HBS. My friend figured that the business school students might appreciate being made aware of an executive recruiter who specializes in placing former military officers. Scott, as a West Point graduate and former Army officer, was a member of Harvard’s Armed Forces Alumni Association. When I sent out an invitation to several leaders of that group to meet me for a get-acquainted session over drinks at John Harvard’s in Harvard Square, Scott St. Germain was the first one to reply. We become friends immediately, and it has been my delight to watch his progress within the ranks of Genentech, a highly regarded biotech firm based in the Bay area. Scott’s passion for his work, his company, his team – have made him a key figure in creating an interface between Genentech’s field sales force and their marketing team.

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PASSION by Scott St. Germain

One of the first words I ever heard from a non-commissioned officer (NCO) were those from the crusty Command Sergeant Major that I encountered upon first reporting to duty as a Platoon Leader in the 3rd Infantry Division (Fort Stewart, GA). With a cheap PX cigarette hanging from the side of his wrinkled mouth, he bluntly said “LT, just take care of your troops.” At the time, I didn’t really think too much about his comments.

I soon dove deep into the waters of junior level leadership and was overwhelmed with the scope of work required of me and of my NCO’s. Between consistent training rotations, imminent deployments, and learning all that there was to learn about life as a young officer, I tried endlessly to succeed at everything, but had difficulty finding the time to focus upon any one single aspect of the job. It was during this period, though, that I did begin to notice a consistent thread running through all of my interactions with the platoon: the 32 soldiers often seemed emotionless and even void of expression or energy. The one outlet for demonstrating their energy seemed to be mechanically blurting out the word “Hooah” when a senior NCO or officer was nearby, but they would then revert to their quasi-lifeless existence. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was going on, and I even noticed that other platoons displayed similar dynamics, if not worse. I finally met up with my Platoon Sergeant after work on a Friday evening and conversed over a can of beer with him on the back of his pickup truck.

My Platoon Sergeant rapidly and semi-robotically began to provide the informational updates on all of the requests that I routinely asked of him: "94% of vehicles were operational, 24 of our platoon members scored high on the PT test, ...etc., etc." But, as he rattled through all of this, it was almost as if he didn’t care or even see the purpose of such information. I then asked him if everything was OK with him, the rest of the platoon, and the remainder of the entire company. He said that he was OK - because he had roughly only 700 days until retirement! The workdays between now and then were simply representative of “checking the block”, and he added that most of the members of the platoon shared similar sentiments. Shocked, but somewhat appreciative of his brutal honesty, I then asked this senior NCO what could possibly change this psyche that existed within him and the rest of the platoon. With a confused look, he stated that he didn’t know and said, “Ya’ know, I can’t remember the last time that somebody asked me how I was doing. Thanks.”

After that encounter, I made a pact to myself to do exactly what the Command Sergeant Major had told me many weeks earlier: “take care of your troops.” As often as I seemed to hear that clichéd phrase, it became evident to me that few, if any, leaders actually lived by that basic mantra.

Over the course of the next several months, I purposely shifted my personal priorities so that I began to focus more upon the soldiers themselves, rather than not upon countless administrative reports, inventories, vehicle inspections and the like. Not that I didn’t pay attention to these tasks, but I just changed my focus to the troops. During this process, I realized that I was actually much more passionate about my job - especially relative to the previous priorities that I had been trained to adopt.

I channeled my energy and passion toward addressing the legitimate needs of these soldiers, including fielding their questions and concerns, not all of which were even necessarily military-related. In fact, I spent many a late night teaching young soldiers how to balance their checkbooks and how to avoid pitfalls when looking to purchase a used vehicle. As I consistently showed my concern regarding their personal training and welfare - and delivered upon such commitments, their own level of pride in their jobs and unit increased palpably and dramatically. I noticed that my own personal job satisfaction had improved, as well. As weeks and months passed, the momentum continued to build as the platoon became one of the sharpest small units in the Brigade, and the morale of the soldiers was demonstrably superior to that of other surrounding units.

As a young officer, I learned to focus my professional efforts upon that which I inherently valued and personally connected with most. Furthermore, I framed the platoon’s work and objectives to them in terms that they actually cared about, appreciated, and felt most passionate about. Our small organization’s vision was one to which they all personally subscribed. Furthermore, I adopted and outwardly communicated the attitude that my work, and the work of all those soldiers in my platoon, should be a noble investment of time, and not just cashing a paycheck or waiting for retirement. I held tightly to this attitude and approach to leadership for the remainder of my career in the military.

As so many young military officers do, I unconsciously put the lessons that I learned deep upon my memory’s library shelves - not knowing when, if ever, I could draw from such volumes of knowledge. It wasn’t until, during the midst of my grad school experience when I began performing the due diligence with regards to civilian career options, that I realized that some of the lessons learned from my military career could significantly assist me in the civilian world.

Specifically, as I was considering post-MBA career options, I noticed that the vast majority of my job prospects did not seem remotely compelling to me, and I could not really understand why. All of the potential employers dressed in nice suits, parted their hair on the same side, and painted for me verbal pictures of very lucrative career paths. I actually began to doubt myself and whether I’d be able to find something of interest. I almost resigned myself to blindly accepting one of these positions like everybody else seemed so happy to do.

As part of my grad school experience, I worked for a short time as a temporary consultant. On all accounts, the firm was an excellent one at which I learned a great deal. However, I became somewhat disenchanted at one of their quarterly business reviews when they were all discussing ways in which they could alter their product next year so that consumers would have another experience to “re-buy” it. The discussions dragged on in a fairly lifeless, unexciting fashion. None of the executives were able to stir up any creative energy from their peers or junior management team.

During this quarterly review process, I couldn’t help but associate the void of feelings and lack of passion amongst this firm’s professionals with the initial stagnation I had encountered with my first military platoon. Neither organization had a grand strategic purpose to which the team members seemed personally connected or about which they could become excited. Neither my early stage platoon soldiers nor my summer colleagues exhibited any passion with regards to what they were doing. Furthermore, none of these folks would ever describe their professional pursuits as personally gratifying or noble. They, like all their colleagues, we’re along for the ride, hoping to climb to the next rung on the ladder and obtain a few more stock options along the way.

As I pondered all of these dynamics, the light finally clicked on for me …

As I then compared my different full-time career path opportunities, one quickly bubbled to the top – Healthcare. The companies that I had been talking to in this space had a vision and purpose that resonated personally with me – bettering and saving peoples’ lives. I couldn’t think of anything more exciting to me on a personal level.

I’m now 3 years removed from completing grad school and currently work in a marketing capacity at a biotech company. I intrinsically enjoy what I do and like to think that I have been successful thus far in my foray into corporate America. I attribute this success to the fact that I channeled my passion and then followed it accordingly. And, because of that, I feel more connected to my professional pursuits – just as I ultimately felt deeply connected with my troops at Fort Stewart. Most importantly, I see parallel principles at work here. When I was an Army officer, my troops, the entire platoon, were better off because I became passionate about taking care of my troops. In my current role as a business leader, I spend my workdays solving problems and taking care of products that I can relate to and am excited about. In turn, during the leadership opportunities that I have had during both careers, I have worked hard to laying out a playing field on which all others around me felt as connected and excited about playing as did I.

My leadership lesson to readers is a simple one - align your intrinsic interests with your professional pursuits, and, as a leader, create an environment in which your troops are passionate about what they do. Good leaders create such environments.

Whether he knows it or not, the Command Sergeant Major that I bumped into as a young lieutenant indirectly taught me a lesson for which I am very grateful - passion goes a long way. Because of that lesson, I learned the importance of taking care of my troops who were putting themselves in harm’s way. Now, ten years later, I make a profession of taking care of patients with cancer.

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Thanks Scott, for sharing your passion with the readers of this Blog.

This series will continue next week with . . . .

10 Leaders Share Their Views On Leadership – Part IV: Perseverance by Chris Squier


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comments on putting passion into the workplace. If there were more leaders like yourself focusing on the mission instead of the payoff, higher performance would likely result.