Friday, December 3, 2010

Full Circle - Lessons From One Sandbox To Another

Life is a funny thing. As you get a bit older and get some experience under your belt your perspective on things definitely changes. The older I get the more I believe that the majority of what has made me successful in dynamic team environments was learned at a very young age. This concept hit me pretty hard while I was deployed to Iraq.

Over the course of my time in Iraq I was in charge of a team of military, civilian, and contractor personnel. I have been in charge of different people, teams, and groups before but for some reason when I was deployed I was much more apprehensive about my capabilities as a manager and leader. Maybe it is because the military mission was smacking me square in the face. Stateside you do not necessarily always see the negative impact of your mistakes. On a deployment the stakes are high. My contracting team's failures directly impacted the war fighters and support troops in theater carrying out the mission. That reality was definitely something I took seriously. As my nerves and doubts got the better of me I was constantly trying to remember lessons learned from college business classes, from the numerous management and leadership books I have read over the years, and from the blogs I frequent. Due to the nature of my no notice deployment and the operational tempo in Iraq I was thrust right in without the convenience of being able to revisit and review leadership and management principles; I was forced to go with my gut and what I have internalized over the years.

Now that I have been back in the good US of A for a few weeks and have had time to reflect on the extremely positive management and leadership experiences I had in Iraq, I look back and my nervousness and insecurities and I almost laugh. I am amazed at how much of what made me successful as a leader over there weren't complex theories and cutting edge management formulas but lessons that I learned as a kid playing on the playground or in the sandbox. Here are a few lessons learned in the school sandbox that helped me immensely in the deployed sandbox:

Learn to Share: I tried to redirect all compliments and make sure that the credit went to my team. Careerists often struggle with this one. We all want to advance and be recognized but avoiding taking credit for the team's successes is crucial to continued team success. Your team will recognize your gratitude for their efforts and your superiors will, over time, see that you are a component of the team success as well even though you humbly redirect credit.

Quit Now Be A Quitter For Life: I distinctly remember my parents drilling this lesson into my head at a very young age and I am grateful they did. I think this simple but impactful lesson has been transformed into many clich├ęd life lessons. When the going gets tough the tough get going. Work hard and the rest will take care of itself. Quitters never win. The list goes on. Regardless of how its worded, the spirit of the lesson helped me immensely overseas. There were times where I just didn't think that I could do all the work that needed to be done. There were times that I didn't think that I had the stamina to make it through the remaining months. I was uncomfortable, tired, overworked, and most of all I missed my family and friends back home. Whenever I felt overwhelmed like that I just put my head down and worked through it. What other choice did I have? Not much to be honest but I think life is the same way. When you get dealt a bad hand you just have to keep working through it, because you can't quit life either.

TEAM = Together Everyone Achieves More: I still remember playing two hand touch in elementary school with my buddies. I can remember the exhilarating feeling I got when we put together a team that kept winning. That was my first taste of synergy in action. All throughout my hockey career and now into my Air Force career I have loved the feeling of being on close knit high performing teams. Those types of teams are not easy to come by but the feeling you get being a part of one of those teams is amazing. In Iraq being part of a team is a necessity. Deployments are not easy so you have to lean on people more than you are used to. But that vulnerability and shared experience creates strong bonds which was refreshing and reminded me of my old hockey playing days.

Cheaters Never Win: People always talk about integrity in the military. I often hear it described as doing the right thing even when no one is looking. That definition, although quite tangible and good to live by, does the spirit of integrity a bit of injustice. Having integrity in what you do and what you say makes you a precious commodity. Normally I am fairly non confrontational. Out there working with the Army things were a bit different than what I was used to working in an office setting in Boston. If you don't speak up and know what you are talking about in Iraq you will get stream rolled by higher ranking hard charging Army dudes! The stakes are high, the tempo is fast paced, and people are stressed out. It is definitely not the place to be timid. So saying what you mean and living by your principles and virtues is more important than ever. Over time I saw that the leaders above me recognized that I had an opinion. Generally that opinion was thought out, reflected my true feelings, and it was founded on a genuine concern for our task at hand and a desire to improve. Having that integrity to stand behind what I said and did made me a constant source of consultation for the senior leaders in our organization. It was a good feeling. It was refreshing to know that you don't have to be a "yes man" or a "brown-noser" to be recognized as valuable to the team. If you work hard and do in your heart what you know is right then you will be recognized for your contributions to the team.

I am sure I could think of a few more but these are the big lessons that come to mind. I would love to hear comments on other childhood lessons that have served people well in their lives. Thanks for reading and it is great to be back!


scott said...

I like it buddy! Ya some people simply forget how to be a good dude and treat other people like subordinates rather than a valuable part of the team. Ive found if you show everyone some respect and really listen to their inputs it will take you a long way and who knows, you might learn something.

Matt Bader said...

I think the description "good dude" pretty much sums it up. I have always found it a bit strange when leaders say "I don't care if people like me." Like having people like you when you are in a leadership position is a bad thing? I have always thought that if you have people like you then you are probably doing something right. That doesn't necessarily mean that you are friends or crossing any professional boundaries but if your team likes you as a person and a leader I think you will be better off in the long run as far as team performance goes.