Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “It is better to act than to be indecisive.” with Per Ohstrom and Marco Dehry
It is better to act than to be indecisive. Even if information is incomplete, taking and keeping the initiative is as important in business as on the battlefield. Standing still means someone else is moving ahead of you, or worse, planning to run you over.
As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Per Ohstrom, a Marketing leader and Consultant. After studies in Sweden and a career in the army reserve, he came to the US for MBA studies. Per has executive experience in equipment, manufacturing and large B2B service companies. Based in East Tennessee, he has done business in dozens of countries around the world. Per is married to a wonderful woman, with three strong, beautiful daughters. His personal web site can be found at http://www.perohstrom.com
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in Gallivare, a small mining town in Swedish Lapland, well north of the Arctic Circle. The area is called Europe’s last wilderness, and it is. In the Arctic winter we would ski and skate without seeing the sun for months. In the short summer there was the midnight sun and great hiking in the mountains.
I got my undergrad degree at Lulea University of Technology, worked in industrial sales and marketing, and came to the US to attend Kellogg School of Management.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
My expertise is in B2B marketing, so I research industrial markets, understand customer needs, develop products, formulate strategy and segmentation, put together value propositions and pricing. Then the fun part starts- roll out marketing and PR campaigns to generate sales.
A few years ago I worked for a company renting out pumps. The construction market was traditionally important for us, but construction was in a down cycle and demand was soft. At the same time fracking was emerging in the oil & gas industry. Since they handle a lot of water at fracking sites, working with Sales I figured out what the requirements were, and we could supply both pumps, piping and know- how for cost effective and environmentally sound water solutions.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I did my compulsory military service in the infantry, 15 months of boot camp and leadership training as a platoon officer in an Arctic Rifle unit. Adjusting well to military life, and with a love for the outdoors, I applied to reserve officer training. After graduating from the Defense University, I was named commanding officer of a locally recruited first responder rifle company.
Stationed on the border, we had high mission readiness and could mobilize in a matter of hours if need be. Vehicles, equipment, guns and ammo were already stockpiled in the assembly area, defensive positions were prepared and the company area reconnoitered in minute detail. We were quite prepared.
A unique challenge was the winter weather, there would be 10 feet of snow in the woods, and temperatures could drop below -40. This put extra strain on equipment and vehicles, and maintaining combat readiness was challenging. Napoleon said “an army marches on its stomach”. This was particularly true for us, a lot of calories were needed just to stay warm.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
Oh, there were many. On an extended winter march in snow and low temperatures, there was a breakdown in command. The platoon leader was exhausted and failed to maintain discipline and keep the unit together. Instead of marching in formation, the platoon started stretching out over miles, soldiers rested when and where they pleased, some fell asleep in the snow drifts and combat readiness approached zero. It took hours to get everything under control, and account for everyone. The platoon leader was reassigned to a lesser job.
This shows that what you learn about leadership in the class room does not always work in the field. A leader that normally is very people- focused, listens to his team and takes time to get buy- in has to be able to change approach. If there is a time crunch or an imminent threat, an executive has to be very task focused and prescriptive until the crisis is over. The ability to work across the spectrum from a “democratic” style (people- orientation) to barking orders (task- orientation) depending on the circumstances is a sign of great maturity in leadership.
I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
A humbling example I heard about from Finnish relatives is from the Winter War. In the beginning of the war, the Finns had no anti- tank capability but faced modern Soviet tanks. To stop them, soldiers would cut 3 foot- long pieces of solid birch wood, and hiding under the snow ditches next to roads wait for tanks to rumble by. Since a platoon had three tanks, the soldier would count down “one tank, two tanks” and then shove the log into the track of the third tank, and lift it off the sprocket. The tank would come to a standstill, and having no radio could not signal for help. Once the crew emerged, which inevitably sooner or later they would, the Finns could deal with them quite effectively.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
A hero is someone who sees a problem or a threat, and quickly and conscientiously tackles the adversity without worrying too much about personal discomfort or danger.
Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
No I do not think so. People doing their job with pride and attention to quality in the face of lesser adversities are also heroes. I have seen many sales people and technical service reps helping customers solve difficult and costly problems, even if it means heading out to a customer site in the middle of the night, or having to reach out to plants to solve problems or warehouses to expedite deliveries. It is important to recognize dedicated men and women going above and beyond to help customers.
Of course, an organization has to be scaled right to work properly. I have seen companies so thinly staffed that heroics are needed just to keep things going and that’s just plain bad management.
Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Management by Objectives beats Command and Control any day. People perform much better when they are given an end goal, and can use their own skills and initiative. In the military this could mean ordering a platoon to knock out 2 enemy vehicles over the coming 24 hours, rather than giving detailed orders for where and when to do an ambush, with how many soldiers, et cetera. Similarly, skilled employees with clear objectives and less meddling are happier and more productive.
2. In the fog of war things always change, and oftentimes orders cannot be effectively communicated. In fluid circumstances soldiers still need to take action. If everyone understands the “Commander’s Intent”, what leaders want accomplished at the end of the day, they can independently make decisions that contribute to these goals. Not having to wait for instructions is empowering, and speeds things up in all organizations.
3. It is better to act than to be indecisive. Even if information is incomplete, taking and keeping the initiative is as important in business as on the battlefield, Standing still means someone else is moving ahead of you, or worse, planning to run you over.
4. Keep It Simple and Stupid. Planning is important, but no plan survives bumping up against reality. Winners have a solid strategy, the right people and resources and have practiced different scenarios before they happen. Once things go south, the best leaders are able to quickly pivot, and still maintain momentum.
5. Officers eat last — the best leaders I have seen are the Servant Leaders taking good care of their people, making sure they are well trained, fed and rested. They lead from the front, and do not ask anyone to do anything they would not themselves do. They trust people to do their best, delegate as much as possible, and always recognize good work.
Do you think your in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
Yes definitely. Leadership training in the military is top notch, it has to be for missions to work under confusing and dangerous circumstances. Also the culture of debriefing missions and learning from mistakes really helps you grow as a leader, and improves job performance.
In business I always try to make sure people have the right skills and training, and understand the “commander’s intent”. If employees know the big picture company strategy and have effective personal goals, they can perform at their best. Another great takeaway from the military is that instructions and communication has to be clear, and how important it is to keep people informed of progress to prevent rumors and misinformation.
As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. How did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?
I was fortunate to serve with conscripts, citizen soldiers in regionally recruited units. Many of us already knew each other, and it was not unusual to see old army buddies from time to time. Everyone had a civilian life to return to, with work or studies, which made the transition easier.
Some of the fundamentals you learn in the military, like self- discipline, physical training and looking out for your buddies are very helpful when returning to civilian life. It is also helpful to stay in touch, have a beer every now and then and tell war stories. Besides helping you air and understand things in hindsight, reunions provide an opportunity to check on each other.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Well, I have this side project I am looking at when I have time, and have been for a while. Marketing of B2B services is a huge and not very well understood discipline in business. Companies that sell software, equipment rentals, professional services, or staffing sometimes do not know if they are segmenting their markets in the right way or if they charge the right price. I am very interested in better understanding issues like value creation, service marketing and quality management. Hopefully there will be some new insights coming from this, to help companies perform better.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Go all in, stay focused, delegate work and trust your people, but make sure you meet goals. Deal swiftly with any issues coming up.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Spend time with your lead team setting strategy and goals for your business, and make communication part of the process. Get alignment around how to internally explain company direction and priorities. Have each level of management trickle down and explain the strategy, and how everyone can contribute to success. Reward initiatives and good work, and never miss a chance to reinforce values and goals.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I think my Finnish grandfather. He lived through four wars, food shortages where meager rations had to be stretched by fishing and picking berries, and decades of national poverty paying war reparations. Still he had a positive outlook, and did what he could to make a better life for his family. He encouraged us grandchildren to go to school and college, arguing that nobody can take away your skills and knowledge, even if they take everything else.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am very people- focused, and try to always treat people with respect. I give employees a lot of freedom to decide how they want to meet their goals, which helps them grow as individuals. Helping and mentoring young people is a favorite way of paying it forward, just like organizing and participating in charitable events that further health and wellbeing.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Since the cold war ended, the existential threat that remains is climate change. I wish we could work together internationally, using science, technology and economic incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reverse global warming. If there was ever an opportunity for a public- private partnership, this is it!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Winston Churchill said “Never give up, never, never, never”, which has helped me keep going through some of the toughest times in the military, in grad school and at work. I use the quote as a screen saver, so if there is inactivity it pops up and jolts you back to the task at hand.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Hmm, there would be quite a few, but I think Alan Greenspan would make for really interesting conversation. His experience spans decades, and he must have great insights around growth, development, politics and economics. I would love to hear his perspective on climate change and its driving forces.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.
Oh no, the pleasure was all mine, I am very humbled! Thank you.