Lesson # 36: Unless you are a) in a position to introduce radical changes in the way a business is run, and b) are given the authority to do so by whomever signs your paychecks, the organization you work for creates the culture that will determine whether you will be a successful leader, or a frustrated one looking for greener pastures.
I very recently had a conversation with a friend about the management skills I learned in the French Navy. There were many, but this is probably the most important one of all.
But first, let’s backtrack a bit. As some of you may already know, back in the early nineties, France still had a mandatory national service. And by “national,” I mean mostly military.
For a 100% bilingual college grad like me, the options were a bit more varied than spending a year learning how to march, salute, and shine my boots. I could have easily grabbed a comfy diplomatic post somewhere – probably in the US – where I would have enjoyed a desk, bankers’ hours, a more relaxed dress code, and a whole lot more personal freedom.
Instead, I chose to test myself a little bit, so I joined the French marines.
Your 90-second tour of the FUMACO culture: The Fusiliers Marins have been around for a few hundred years (and basically served as naval riflemen/guys with rifles and sabers who protected ships from assaults), but the scope of their mission changed during WWII, when the impending invasion of Normandy forced French marines stationed in the UK to be retasked as commando units. They trained alongside the ritish Royal Marine commandos, adopting their tactics, weapons, and special operations culture. The success of these units on D-Day made the change stick, and just like that, the culture of the Fusiliers Marins changed from that of old school “naval riflemen” to one of raiders, scouts, and special operators.
To this day, the Fusiliers Marins training center in Lorient still uses the same training techniques as the ones taught to the original Commandos back in 1942-1945 in Scotland. The choice of locations for the school is also no accident as the weather in Lorient is typically pretty lousy in the fall and winter, when those of us dumb enough to be lured by a good challenge undergo what can only be described as a “conversion.”
Trust me, night combat swims in the North Atlantic in November are not fun.
But I digress. Let’s try to get back to the point.
The “commando” culture in the FUMACOs was such that – although the basics of our schooling in combat leadership was based on specific tactics and maneuvers (procedures) – everything about our training in the field dealt with thinking outside the box (innovation).
Survival. our units had to compensate for their small size by being smarter, faster, stealthier, and less predictable than the enemy.
If you’re already finding parallels with the corporate world, good. It means you’re paying attention.
In the classroom, our instructors droned on and on about textbook tactics – which would really only work in specific types of situations. The real world, however, doesn’t always play by the rules. As a matter of fact, it rarely does. In the field, we were tested and retested on our ability to make decisions quickly in the face of seemingly impossible problems. Improvisation was a matter of life and death. Tactical innovation was, more often than not, a matter of necessity.
And I loved that.
But our interactions with the rest of the military world (the larger, corporate portions of the military machine) were very different. Getting anything done took forever. Many of the officers I ran into in my regular dealings with other services in the Navy were there simply to make sure that procedure was always followed to the letter. Passing the buck was common. Things worked well enough, but well enough wasn’t always all that great.
Of course, it depends whom you ask.
Once my training was over and I found myself assigned to a FUMACO company on a naval base, I found myself working shoulder to shoulder with many such folks – and having to juggle “management” styles between both worlds (one of quick thinking and decisive action, and the other of procedure, bureaucracy, and politics) was difficult.
One of the first thing I was told by the “lifers” who had been doing the same job in the same office for 10+ years was this: “Here’s the way things work around here. Don’t make waves, don’t try and change anything, and you’ll do great.”
Scary… but good advice for times when I had to get things done in their world.
Note: Understanding the different cultures across department lines – as well as knowing where the borders separating one from the other lie – puts you at a decisive advantage when your objective is to get things done without stepping on too many toes. You just have to know when to switch tactics to best suit your environment.
Many of the officers I shared meals and drinks with when I was on base (not combat officers) looked for advancement at parties and dinners given by their superiors. They didn’t make waves. They didn’t change anything. They just performed their function as well as they needed to, no more, no less, and waited for their next payraise to come. If they played their cards right, they might even land a nice, comfy HQ job someday. That’s what they were into. They weren’t the least bit interested in fixing inefficiencies or questioning bad systems. It just wasn’t the kind of thing they were into. They weren’t necessarily bad leaders, but they were most comfortable simply being managers.
And although that often drives me a little batty, I understand that there’s nothing wrong with that. Without people who crave order and routine, we would have absolute chaos. These folks can make an imperfect system work fairly well before someone who has vision and the authority to improve it comes along. (And they always do, eventually.) There’s a lot to be said for that.
What’s interesting to note is that we all chose our paths. Those of us who wanted to serve in a more… unconventional way, found a home with the FUMACOs. Those of us who prefered routine and predictabilty gravitated towards more conventional types of jobs. In other words, from the very start of our military careers, we all chose job descriptions and corps cultures that appealed to our own interests and personality types. To help us, the military’s selection process quickly weeded out or redirected those who weren’t completely honest with themselves about their strengths, weaknesses and motivation. (This was done within the first weeks or months of training rather than mid-career.)
The truth is that not everyone is cut out to be a combat leader. Not everyone is cut out to be a department manager. Not everyone is cut out to make split-second decisions in high-stress situations. Not everyone is cut out to sit at a desk all day or file forms properly. No matter how much we may want to be a CEO or a CMO or a field commander or a desk clerk, we aren’t necessarily cut out to be one.
But we are cut out to do something very well, and love doing it. Every last one of us. The trick is to find what that thing is and directing our lives and careers in that direction. It takes honesty, and sometimes also the courage to give up a wrong path to find the correct one again.
In my short but relatively well-filled career – both in the military and the private sector – I have found myself at times in the perfect type of job, and at times, not.
The perfect type of job for me (and for everyone) keeps you engaged. It draws on your passions and talents. It makes full use of your skills. It doesn’t bore you or burn you out. It brings the best out of you because it makes you want to perform at your best day in, day out.
In sharp contrast, the wrong kind of job is always frustrating, boring, unsatisfying… or all of the above. Many of us fall into these types of jobs by accident (we didn’t do enough research on the company or the management team, for example), or because we weren’t honest with ourselves. The lure of good money or a big name brand or an impressive title on our business cards brought us there. I’ve been there. I’m sure you have too. It happens. Finding the right company to work for or the right client to work is often based on trial and error.
That means that I haven’t always been 100% honest with myself. It also means that I haven’t always had the luxury of being able to choose the ideal job.
Ah, the harsh realities of life. (Yes, we live in an imperfect world… where most of us actually have to pay these things called bills.)
It’s one thing to take a job you hate because you need to put food on the table while you’re searching for the right one. It is another to take a job you don’t really enjoy and spend years suffering through it.
Trust me on this: You aren’t doing anyone any good by staying at the wrong job once you know that you would be happier doing something else (or the same type of thing for someone else).
Don’t even try to argue. It’s a fact.
Another fact is this: It’s okay to drive a desk or a cash register. It’s okay if you never become CEO or if you never get your picture on the cover of Fast Company or Time or Newsweek. It’s okay if no one ever recognizes your efforts. It’s okay to be a link in the chain. If that’s what you excel at and you enjoy it, don’t try to be something that isn’t in your blood.
If you read this blog, chances are that you’re either a leader or a future leader, so I’ll focus my little conclusion on what that means for people in leadership or management positions:
There are two types of organizations:
1. Organizations whose cultures favor routine, procedure, and the status-quo.
2. Organizations whose cultures favor initiative, innovation, and risk-taking.
There are also two types of people:
1. People (and leaders) who are best suited for the first type of organization.
2. People (and leaders) who are best suited for the second type of organization.
Matching the right type of person to the right type of environment will yield great results. The opposite will yield little more than complete disaster.
It’s really that simple. (It took long enough to get here, but hey. Like you had anything better to do than read this post.)
When taking a position with a new company or at a new office, it is crucial to understand what type of culture you are about to enter into. If you favor initiative and innovation, but find yourself in an environment whose leadership favors bureaucrats and “not making waves,” you will be miserable, and you probably won’t last very long.
Likewise, if you’re great at being an effective “status quo” manager and get promoted to a leadership position with a fast-speed, innovative, out-of-the-box thinking team, you’re probably going to get run over.
I’ve watched officers who were great managers crash and burn when they tried to command an operational unit in the field. In peace time, it’s just an embarrassing little adventure, but in war time, hesitation and waiting for confirmation from your superiors gets people killed, which isn’t good. Likewise, I have watched terrific combat leaders try and run teams of office clerks, only to fail miserably as well. (Tip #871: Yelling and the threat of forced night marches work well with combat Marines, but not so much with indoor desk warriors.)
The same is true in the corporate world.
So, select your next job or client wisely. Know when to turn down an offer that you know will end badly, even if it seems attractive on the front end. (A bigger salary isn’t worth the headaches and stress of finding yourself in an environment you hate.)
And always, always, always make sure that whomever signs your paychecks gives you (in writing) the authority to do your job.
I’ll say this again: Get your authority in writing. Always.
If you find yourself tasked with reviving a department or organization that has been performing poorly, make sure that you have the authority to make the necessary changes, or you will find yourself a) turning gray prematurely, and b) looking for another job before you know it. (The average tenure of a CMO in the US is less than two years. Hmmmm… I wonder why.)
Understand this: Most great organizations (and brands) become great because the right people are in the right jobs at the right time – and NEVER because they had the wrong people in the wrong jobs at the wrong time.
Seems like common sense, right? Okay… now welcome back to the real world. Look around you and tell me what you see.
(Okay. Point made. Stop staring at your coworkers. You’re probably freaking them out right about now.)
So how do you accomplish this glorious feat of efficiency and karmic equilibrium? Well, since you’re a leader and you were lucky to be blessed with this crazy thing called initiative, it all starts – simply enough – with you, and just a few seconds of introspection:
Step 1 – Figure out what type of corporate culture best suits you. It could be routine, or it could be the furthest thing from it. (It’s okay to like the routine stuff. If that’s your thing, embrace it.) Just be honest and pick one.
Step 2 – Make sure your organization’s culture is aligned with what works best for you. With any luck, you’re already in the right place. If not, go to step 3.
Step 3 – If you determine that you are working in the wrong kind of environment, start looking for one better suited to your leadership style interests.
Step 4 – If adjustments need to be made to an organization, department or team you are responsible for, make sure you are given the authority to do so – or move on.
Step 5 – Make sure that your team, department or organization is staffed adequately. Not everyone is going to go through steps 1-3, so do it for them. As a leader, your team is your responsibility. Making it work isn’t about working harder. It’s about working smarter.
Don’t waste your time being frustrated or unhappy. It is never worth it. Not even in the short term.
Have a great weekend, everyone.