Several weeks ago, as I thought about the ten individuals who would write articles for this series on transition from the military to business leadership, John Byington was the first person I asked to participate. If you were to know John only by his resume, you might conclude: “This guy is too good to be true!” John attended the Naval Academy, and serves as the Vice-President of the Class of 1990. While still working to complete his undergraduate degree in Engineering from Annapolis, he completed a Masters in National Security from Georgetown University. John earned his wings and served as a Search & Rescue helicopter pilot and Mission Commander during deployments to the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Persian Gulf. He returned to Annapolis to teach political science, and was nominated for the Academy’s “Leadership and Excellence in Teaching Award.” Along the way, he also managed to graduate as #1 in his class of 284 handpicked naval officers at the U.S. Naval War College. When I first met John, he was pursuing his MBA at Harvard Business School, where he served as President of the Armed Forces Alumni Association. Since leaving HBS, John has held leadership roles with GE Medical Systems IT and ACCESS Medical in Chicago. On paper, John Byington is quite imposing; in the flesh, he is even more impressive. The best thing I can say about John is that in the four years I have known John, he has become one of my closest friends and trusted advisors. I also know John as a devoted husband to Cara and loving father to Nate and Zach. He epitomizes loyalty, and I am proud to have him on my team. I can’t think of anyone better to tackle writing about the issue of teamwork for this series.
Teamwork Lessons from Naval Aviation
By John Byington
This may come as shock, but most of what you know about naval aviation from watching "Top Gun," isn’t true. That scene where Tom Cruise’s character, Maverick, buzzes the tower (or Island as we call it) and the Air Boss spills coffee all over himself – that would definitely never happen. Well, it could happen once, but then “Boss” would have your wings and you would have a new, far less glamorous career.
Naval aviation isn’t about the Mavericks of the world. In its ultimate expression – the fulfillment of the mission – naval aviation is a hymn to teamwork. In the business world, inflated egos and competing agendas among team members can kill a team’s dynamic and cost you money, time, clients, promotions and respect. In the world of naval aviation, rampant egos and competing agendas can kill a team, literally.
Good teamwork is like the win-win situation that people always talk about, but seldom see. But if you have ever been on a winning team, either in sports, the military or business, you know the sense of accomplishment that comes from working together to achieve a common goal. Business schools and libraries are full of books on the subject of teams and how to get the most out of them, but I’ll just hit four points that have served me well as both a team member and leader.
The Ritual of the Team
In the four years I spent at Annapolis, I had my head shaved so many times (because of the gung-ho summer programs I volunteered for), I was afraid that eventually it would just stop growing back. But beneath the incessant buzz of the barbers’ clippers was a lesson in teamwork that took me years to appreciate. The best teams are built not only on shared goals, but shared experience as well. Whether it’s the ritual of head shaving (which I don’t recommend for your next sales retreat) or the Tuesday morning team meeting, shared experience binds team members together and builds commitment to the team and its goals. Look for opportunities to create shared experience (sometimes called “team building”) and to articulate a team goal that everyone understands and is committed to.
The old saw that “there is no 'I' in team” isn’t original, but it is important. Commitment to the team includes dedication to the goal, loyalty to other members and a level of selflessness. It means playing your role, even if it isn’t your favorite, or even if it doesn’t necessarily take you down the path to immediate individual glory. A good team player delivers what they alone can uniquely contribute, but also pitches in on other roles and supports other team members in service to the shared team goal. That could be in a night search and rescue mission over the Mediterranean Sea or increasing your company’s operational efficiency by 45 percent.
Your team is part of a bigger team
As a helicopter mission commander, I knew that my co-pilot, the air crewmen flying with us and I were all part of something bigger. On an aircraft carrier, helicopters are the first to launch and the last to land. The search and rescue capabilities of our aircraft were required for flight operations to begin. If the helicopter team didn’t fly, the strike package composed of other teams of aircraft wouldn’t be allowed to launch. A failure of teamwork on our part would threaten the entire mission of the aircraft carrier, and potentially US national interests.
It’s the same in the business world. Teams are mutually dependent across an organization. It’s important to keep your eye on the larger goals of the company. If the sales team doesn’t get the job done, revenues are lost. If the customer service team falls victim to in-fighting and dysfunctional team dynamics, the company loses clients. In both cases, profits suffer. Be alert to the ways your team fits within the organization. Look for opportunities to improve not only performance within the team, but also within the team’s relationship to the other parts of the organization.
Teamwork isn’t just about execution
As a former naval officer, I encounter misconceptions about the military all the time. One of my favorites is when people think military command is all about giving orders, following orders and saluting. One of the great strengths of the American military has always been the ability of people within it to respond quickly to changing demands. An unthinking, “aye, aye, sir” mentality rarely gets the job done in the military or business.
Because you serve a role bigger than yourself as a member of a team, you can’t be too narrow and simply “wait for orders.” For things to work optimally, you need to do more. You need to look at everything through the prism of the team’s goal. You need to understand its mission in a larger context and be pro-actively poised to serve it. Because no management article is complete without a reference to either the military or baseball, I will insert my baseball analogy here. In baseball, the goal is to score more runs than the other team and win the game. In service to that goal, every member of the team is alert to ways they can help cover the bases. They don’t wait for orders.
If the first baseman is pulled off the bag to field the ball, the pitcher often covers for him. Can you imagine the highlight on SportsCenter if the pitcher decided that he just didn’t feel like running over to first base because it wasn’t his usual position? Or worse, can you imagine the hissy fit George Steinbrenner would have if the pitcher didn’t act when he saw an opportunity because he was waiting for orders from the home office? It wouldn’t matter if the pitcher had thrown wonderful pitches, the team could still fail because of his unwillingness to do more than execute one highly proscribed role.
Role of the team leader (See “No 'I' in Team”)
The team leader must create the conditions that lead to success. One key to leading a team well is knowing the strengths, weaknesses and working styles of every member of the team, including yourself as the leader. Recognize that you will have to manage personalities as much as projects. Recognize that different situations will call for different responses. Sometimes decisions will be made unilaterally; sometimes decisions must be reached by consensus. There are an infinite number of management styles to address an infinite number of challenges, but a few things remain constant. A good leader always sets clear expectations and creates a working climate where team members can raise issues, both good and bad. If your team is afraid to give you bad news, then you will be the last to know when things start to go off track.
Another of the biggest stumbling blocks to a healthy team can be communication. In writing about engineering and nanotechnology in the early 1990s, K. Eric Drexler noted that, if “the finished parts are going to work together, they must be developed by groups that share a common picture of what each part must accomplish…the challenge of management and team-building is to make that communication happen.”
The challenge of every team is to accomplish their goal. But the truly extraordinary teams have a kind of energy that can transform organizations. From the controlled chaos of an aircraft carrier’s flight deck to the teams laboring over software startups in someone’s garage, good teamwork doesn’t always mean success, but poor teamwork invariably leads to failure.
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Thank you, John
This series will continue next week with . . . .
10 Leaders Share Their Views On Leadership – Part VII: “Loyalty” by Dr. Phil Anderson