How to lead a team built for survival

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Groom all members to be the next man up.

My time on the football field for Army West Point and throughout my military career not only taught me how to be an effective leader, but also how to be the next man up. It’s a concept of organizational structure that was born out of the military and an understanding that I carry into my own professional career.

On the battlefield, there is no room for loose ends. You have to go in with massive contingency plans that are well defined and a prepared command structure that everyone understands. Each officer and soldier is trained to understand multiple roles and to adapt or fulfill other responsibilities as needed. This way, if someone goes down in the process, everyone else knows exactly who will pick up the slack and accept their new role. It’s a matter of supporting your team and making sure the organization survives.

In the civilian world, you will often find the opposite mentality. We are all selfish in our own lives, and people go out of their way to make themselves indispensable. Being indispensable gives them a sense of power and job security, but it does so at the expense of the organization. They may withhold information and try to make their position such that the whole organization would crumble without them.

The way I manage teams is based off my experience at West Point and in active duty. I am constantly making sure people are cross-trained and that they understand we delegate greater and greater responsibility to those that can do it. If it is clear they can’t handle it then we redirect and move them to a different position. This way they can not only do their own job effectively, but also back up others and understand how they fit in a different contingency plan. I want to make sure everyone on my team can be the next man up.

On the football field, there are first-string and second-string players. If you’re the first-string linebacker, it takes strong leadership skills to spend time with the second-string linebacker and teach him the role without fear of losing your job. If you are injured in the championship game, it is up to the second-string linebacker to come in and seamlessly “fill the hole”. Your team could be bringing home the trophy, not because of your play, but because you mentored the next man up.

If you manage this way and have an organizational culture of “thinking up” then you are constantly building a strong leadership bench. This creates opportunity and a more motivated work environment. People want to feel like their job is part of something greater. Nothing drives this point home clearer than grooming them in multiple aspects of the business and giving them a greater understanding of the organizational structure it takes to make your product.

If you are a leader in your business or organization, invest time in all of your employees. Make sure they are able to step up and fill roles left vacant. I guarantee this will lead to success in the long-run.