Tuesday, March 21, 2006

10 Leaders Share Their Views On Leadership – Part V: “Planning” by Chris Crane

Kelly Perdew dedicated the fifth chapter of his book, “Take Command,” to the task of Planning. He called the chapter, “Planning: Fail to Plan; Plan to Fail.” He leads off the chapter with these recollections:

“Some people who meet me might think initially I’m a little rigid. Some of my teammates on The Apprentice certainly did! I took a lot of heat during the filming of the show for being so ‘absorbed’ on the laptop. Hey, I like to plan! What can I say? From the age of sixteen, when I started thinking about college, I learned that it’s never too early to start planning, especially when you goals are high ones – like getting into West Point. And after getting into West Point, I learned even more about the necessity of planning.

West Point intentionally overloaded cadets with so many responsibilities that there was no way we could ever complete them all in the time available. So we learned to prioritize. The better you become at planning and prioritizing, the more efficient you become, and the more you’re able to accomplish. No person has unlimited resources; you have to learn how to best expend your effort.”
(Page 91)

With that introduction to the topic of Planning, it seemed only right that I should ask a West Point graduate to share his experiences with Planning. Chris Crane graduated from the U.S. Military Academy with a degree in Environmental Engineering. After earning his Ranger Tab and serving with the 82nd Airborne Division and a Combat Engineering Company, Chris attended Harvard Business School. He recently returned to Boston along with his family to assume a senior operations role with Bank of America.

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by Chris Crane

“Don’t forget nothing!” – The first of 19 Standing Orders, issued by Major Robert Rogers to his Rangers in 1759.

I selected this as the introductory line for my contribution because I believe that it very succinctly summarizes the intent of “planning;” think ahead about the many possible external forces acting on you and prioritize your responses based on the magnitude of their impacts.

· Is it going to be cold in two days? Then pack a parka.
· Do your sectors of fire intersect with adjacent units? Then coordinate to prevent fratricide.
· What if our data server fails? Then install a reliable back-up.
· Can you competitors unexpectedly drop their prices? Then know your margins now, and manage your suppliers.

To former military leaders, the ability to apply sequential and logical detail to future action is truly a differentiator that has become second nature to us at this point. For the military officer with any exposure to “operations,” (last I checked, this means all of us) this is our proverbial bread-and-butter. I break the broad attribute of planning down into four specific, actionable competencies relevant to the military and business communities alike.

1. Translate the strategic vision into the tactical plan.

Simply stated, this is turning concept into reality. Effective military officers are adept at taking the big picture goals, objectives, commander’s intent, or guidance, and developing actions to make them happen. The light-bulb first went off for me as a new light engineer platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division. During an often-repeated training exercise called a “48-hour defense,” I would spend the first 16 hours serving as the engineer subject matter expert to an infantry battalion commander and his staff. During that time, he’d make broad sweeping hand gestures to indicate “turning the enemy here, or stopping them at a choke point in a valley.” From those vague generalities, it was my responsibility to quickly analyze and define the specific actions needed on the ground to make it happen. The solution may have been series of minefields in one location, or a wire obstacle cover by indirect fire at another. In the end, it was up to me to spend the balance of that 48 hours on the ground, walking the terrain, coordinating with the infantry and artillery units, sitting in the mud to site in obstacles, and turning his concept into reality. I have applied the same methodology in my previous work for a small crisis management consulting firm where roles were often undefined. The CEO would merely say “we need a marketing plan to target industry ABC,” or “we should consider the value of going in-house, acquiring, or sub-contracting a particular skill set,” and it would be my job as Director of Operations, to develop the tactical plan with action to make it happen.

2. Execute.

If I could add an 11th characteristic to Kelly’s list, I’d add “execute.” Successful plans are for naught without the ability to act on them. Within my first four weeks in a new role at a large commercial bank, an associate brought up my name in a meeting and said “we’d like to thank you for making such-and-such happen. You really don’t know how many people are already benefiting from this.” In my best attempt at being humble, I said “Well, it wasn’t really my idea, I just acted on it.” To which he responded, “That’s the point. So much time gets spent throwing ideas around here that no one takes the time to act on them.” In this case, I really didn’t know any better. I wasn’t established enough in a new position to guide policy, but I knew how to act. I believe this concept carries forward even when we are in a position to set and develop the policies or strategies; military leaders recognize how to get things done.

3. Identify and assemble critical resources.

Whether people or supplies, technological capabilities or transportation needs, the military teaches its leaders to think methodically about getting the most out of the resources they have, prioritizing the shortfalls, and planning for contingencies. I know the Army makes it a critical piece of every operations plan to request and allocate additional support or supplies ahead of time, forcing the leader to plan in advance. The most relevant example for me is a post-military experience, that in the end, probably sounds more like a military exercise than a business venture. While at a risk management firm, I was responsible for a three-week search-and-rescue operation, turned search-and-recovery, in Nicaragua. People were missing on an island in the jungle, and I had to find them. While I didn’t have an S-4 / G-4 (Logistics Capability) to provide support, fortunately, I had a satellite phone and a supply of cash in hand. Within a span of 48 hours, I moved six former military special operators and a translator from the US, assembled 60 local farmers, integrated with a company from the Nicaraguan Army, liaised with the police, contracted for local communications, and rented out an entire hostel to feed and house my team. All the while, utilizing every possible combination of airplane, helicopter, boat, SUV, and banana truck to pull these resources together. While not every moving piece of this assembly venture went off as “planned,” I had a methodology in place for collecting resources and allocating them towards the goal.

4. Delegate and Supervise (when appropriate).

Despite the best of plans, a good leader cannot do it all himself or herself. The military teaches its leaders to identify and develop capable subordinate leaders to delegate and assist in managing operations as part of the plan. However, the military also teaches its leaders, before they are even leaders, to be good followers. To me, this means not being afraid to roll-up ones sleeves, dig into the details, and make a direct impact. Critical to our success, in my opinion, is our ability to readily identify the tipping point – “When can I hand this off completely? When can I delegate and periodically supervise? And, when do I need to be involved in every detail or just do it myself?” Certainly there are multiple factors that go into delegation planning (familiarity, complexity, tenure, scope, personality, etc.) but I’d argue that military leaders are very good at quickly sizing up this requirement. (I do not mean to imply that leaders without military experience are not capable in this regard, by any stretch). For me, the best examples occurred when I assumed the role of an engineer company commander and again when I took over a contract security firm. In each case, I had a group of five direct reports, platoon leaders and account managers respectively, who each had similar backgrounds and responsibilities. However, each required a different degree of supervision based on their personalities and the specific tasks they were periodically assigned. Sometimes, I erred on over-supervising up front until I was comfortable with their capabilities. Other times, I gave them the rope to run (and hang themselves if appropriate). In either case, they never let me down.

I truly believe that the military, much more so than business school or any post-military job taught me to smoothly transition from concept to reality by developing a plan. While at times, it appears deliberate, it is more often an automatic, subconscious process. In summary, I’d like to offer a few final thoughts on “planning,” and how military experience in planning can benefit you in the business world.

· Having thought through a plan and choosing one course of action over another, you are more adept at thinking quickly and responding “on your feet” to a dynamic situation. Don’t be afraid to change the plan as you go.
· We go with what we know, apply the 80% solution, trust your gut, and avoid “analysis-paralysis.” You’ve been forced to make a plan based on imperfect information in the past, so what are you waiting for to act now?
· Always ask yourself “what next?” and “what if?”

As a footnote: Though Roger’s quote used to kick-off this article is succinct and memorable, it is actually believed to be an abbreviated colloquialism, written in1936 by Kenneth Roberts to be used in his novel ‘Northwest Passage.’ It appears as a folksy version of the rules during a conversation between one of the characters and a new Ranger recruit. The actual text of Roger’s first Standing Order is something along the lines of: “All Rangers are to be subject to the rules and articles of war; to appear at roll- call every evening, on their own parade, equipped, each with a firelock, sixty rounds of powder and ball, and a hatchet, at which time an officer from each company is to inspect the same, to see they are in order, so as to be ready on any emergency to march at a minute's warning; and before they are dismissed, the necessary guards are to be draughted and scouts for the next day appointed.”

I think we’d all agree that “Don’t forget nothing!” is easier to remember.

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Thank you, Chris.

This series will continue next week with . . . .

10 Leaders Share Their Views On Leadership – Part VI: “Teamwork” by John Byington

I encourage you to share this series with others you feel would benefit from the insights of these leaders.


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