Applying M.B.A Management Styles to Company Command
Part 2: Communicating, Empowering, and the Cost of Quality
Captain Dan Wagner is an Armor officer currently completing his Masters in Business Administration (M.B.A.) at the University of Colorado Boulder and is specializing in Supply Chain and Operations Management. His previous assignments include Commander “Attack” Troop, 6–1 Cavalry, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT) Fort Bliss, Texas. Assistant Operations officer for 3rd Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment, 1 SBCT Fort Bliss, Texas as well as Assistant Operations Officer, HHC XO, Tank Company XO, and Tank Platoon Leader for 3rd Battalion 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas. His military education includes Officer Basic Course, Maneuver Captain’s Career Course (MCCC), and Airborne school. He is a 2007 graduate of the United States Military Academy and majored in Chinese. He is also the author of the blog “MBA Knowledge-Military Process”. He will be attending Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth this July. The opinions expressed here do not reflect the positions of any branch of the U.S. Army, Department of The Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.
Special credit is due to MAJ(P) Bryan Frizzelle and CPT Brett Hanger for their editorial assistance and ideas on this article.
This is the second part in a two-part article. In it, Captain Dan Wagner, who is currently completing his Masters of Business Administration at the University of Colorado Boulder applies business management principles to issues he experienced as a Troop Commander. The goal of this article is to empower current and future Company Commanders, so that they may be able to more efficiently run their organizations and tackle more important issues.
COMMUNICATING WITH YOUR BOSS
When I was in command I sometimes felt awkward communicating with my Squadron Commander and Brigade Commander. It wasn’t because of anything they were doing, but more so the feeling that over-communicating would be seen as “kissing ass.” Because of this, I never established a regular dialogue with my boss outside of meetings or required reports. Looking back, I feel that this was a detriment to my unit that I could have prevented. Talking regularly with your boss isn’t sucking up; you are identifying how your unit can best address the needs of the greater organization while securing the resources your subordinates need to accomplish the mission. Relationships between a boss and subordinate involve, “mutual dependence between two fallible human beings…[bosses] need cooperation, reliability, and honesty from their direct reports…[subordinates need bosses] for links to the rest of the organization…setting priorities, and for obtaining critical resources.” John J. Gabarro and John P. Kotter added to this thought in their article, “Managing Your Boss” stating that because we recognize people are fallible, to make the boss-manager relationship work you need to, “have a good understanding of the other person and yourself, especially regarding strengths, weaknesses, work styles and needs” and then you must “use this information to develop and manage a healthy working relationship- one that is compatible with both people’s working styles.” When you talk more with your boss, you gain an understanding for their goals and objectives, pressures, strengths, weakness, blind spots and work styles. They in turn gain an understanding for how you think, your strengths and weakness, your personal style, and your disposition towards dependence on authority figures. Your working relationship improves because of this. Thus, when you eventually do have problems, you can more easily discuss them. Communicate regularly with your boss, keeping in mind you are doing it for your Soldiers, and you will enjoy a significant advantage
SHOULD YOU EMPOWER DOWN TO THE LOWEST LEVEL?
For the longest time, I have heard leaders in the Army say the phrase “Empower down to the lowest level.” Their intent is to both help commanders not get bogged down taking on every task and to make the quality of life better for junior Soldiers by giving them more authority and autonomy. While I would say the intent of this message is good, the action of empowering everyone right away is a bit misguided.
“Empowering to the lowest level” isn’t clear and always left me with reservations. Is the term “lowest” an absolute or a relative term? What if I am not comfortable empowering someone? Could that be my gut instinct telling me something?
I know this goes against the grain of traditional thought but you shouldn’t empower everyone. At least not everyone right away. There will be those who need extra help- these are the ones you must focus your efforts on coaching, before you can empower them. You’ll know who these people are. My professor for Management of Organizational Change and Executive Leadership, as well as former Army Captain during the Vietnam War, Douglas Bennett, said there are five conditions you must fulfill before you truly empower someone
· Ensure they have the right capacity or skills to succeed
· Give them all the information they need to succeed
· Give them the tools necessary to succeed
· Give them the authority to make decisions
· Give them the right reward for a job well done
Unfortunately, you won’t always get to pick your subordinates. You will have to play with the cards you are dealt. You do have to assume that those coming to you should have a certain baseline set of skills that they have gained from either institutional learning or experience. Where you identify gaps in their skills or capacity, you can develop plans for leadership training.
You will routinely update your subordinates with training plans and changes that come down from higher. They should have a good idea of what the plan is. But how often do your subordinate leaders have the contacts that you do? If they want to talk to the brigade lawyer or battalion schools NCO do they know who to talk to or where to go? Will the more adventurous ones spend their time wandering around the Brigade HQ? I recommend you create a google drive with all the important contacts that you need to get things done. Give a name, phone number, email, office location, job description and what they can help on.
This is something I think we do a poor job at. We usually assume that whatever best practices and useful tools get passed on as leaders change out with one another. Not only do we fail to grant access to tools, but we fail to ensure that people know what tools are available. I think you should ensure subordinate leaders have access to everything you use
· ADPPS (Specify which FMs, TMs, ATTPs you want them to have)
· Read access to PBUSE
· Weekly reports from SAMS-E
· Squadron Slide Decks
· DA PAM 350–38 (STRAC)
When you give them these tools, not only will you enhance their ability to act, but you will also see them coming to you with questions less often which improves your time to get things done. When possible, take your subordinate leaders with you to higher headquarters when you need to get something done there. They get the experience of seeing what their commander does and they gain the knowledge of where connections and resources are. This also makes the unit more versatile and can help cross-train tasks.
You will run into either of two different situations, you will have the Lieutenant who comes and seeks your approval to do the most menial tasks or you will have the Lieutenant that never comes to you to let you know what they are doing. Don’t let their authority be ambiguous and tell them “You’re a PL it’s your platoon you can decide” but then routinely check them when they make decisions. We often think of CCIR as something we only use in combat, or training events with Battalion or higher. Why not make your own list of common sense CCIR? During initial counseling, give them some left and right boundaries (e.g what training can they plan, what decisions need to come up to you, when to release soldiers for the day, etc). When you give them authority to make decisions, and outline those boundaries, you will find that they will be less hesitant and the process of meeting your intent in recurring, minor activities will translate to meeting your intent in more complex higher level training or in combat.
I think we can absolutely do better on this one as a whole. All too often rewards are an all or nothing event. A Soldier either gets an ARCOM/AAM for doing something at training or they get nothing. There are so many other opportunities to reward our Soldiers that we are missing out on. As you get to know them, figure out what they are motivated by. Is it just awards? Is it public appreciation that can be garnered by praising them in front of a closeout formation? Is it a pat on the back from someone they respect and simply a “job well done”? Maybe even a personal letter/email after the fact extolling what they did. One of the most treasured rewards I got while in Command was when our Command Sergeant Major came out to a training event and said it was awesome training. That meant the world to me and motivated me to continue working harder. Find out how to best reach your subordinates, and they will return your generosity tenfold. If you do plan on using motivational tools outside of military awards, do not forget to accompany it with some form of formal recognition later on, whether in their evaluation or with an award. Outstanding performance should be documented for organizational purposes if not for motivational purposes. The record of performance will help the Soldier and the unit far into the future in determining promotion potential where a thousand “job well done” s won’t be readily apparent.
COMMUNICATING WITH SUBORDINATES
As a leader, you need to communicate, and then communicate some more. While I feel like I beat my Platoon Leaders and PSG like a dead horse with communication, I failed in another probably more important area. I didn’t communicate enough with my Squad Land this lead to stress and confusion. Though my Platoon Sergeants and Platoon Leaders were passing down notes from the training meetings, sometimes my Squad Leaders and Team Leaders did not understand the broader context for why we were doing things the way we were. Through Command Climate surveys I learned by Junior Leaders were frustrated and didn’t understand:
· Why the training schedule was so busy?
· Why we were mandating certain uniforms for training?
· Why did it seem like the Commander was listening to Soldiers more than NCOs?
When issues come up in a Command Climate Survey, it is already too late. You have problems that are affecting your unit. What I learned from these responses is that I was not providing them enough of an outlet to question or challenge me. Sure, I had an open door policy, like every other commander, but I still don’t think this did enough to encourage the active challenging of ideas they didn’t understand or didn’t agree with. I made decisions that were wrong. From my point of view they seemed good at the time, but when they got down to the Squad Level they didn’t make sense. Had I created an environment where NCOs were forced or at least encouraged to challenge me, I think they would have done so on a more regular basis. As a leader, I should be respectfully called out when I make bad decisions, I just request that they bring with them proposed solutions to the problems they see.
If I could do it all over again, I would have had monthly meetings (1 hour or less) with all the Squad Leaders. This meeting could be over lunch, PT, in the conference room or even out in the field. I would use the first meeting as a sensing session to find out what they want to talk about, learn about, or get clarification on. I would then create a list of topics and assign one of the NCOs to lead the discussion on it at a later date. During these meetings, I would interject more with questions than comments and let the group consensus guide the discussion. I would ask them what they think right should be and course correct as needed. For questions I couldn’t answer, I’d take them back and get an answer from higher or make a decision by the next duty day.
The Cost of Quality
I learned one of the most important lessons at the end of my Planning and Production course called the Cost of Quality. Cost of Quality is the measurement of what it takes to keep things producing the same results. There are four types, Prevention, Appraisal, Internal Failure, and External Failure. On one side of the spectrum of Cost of Quality, Prevention aims to fool proof a situation so that the failure won’t occur in the first place and Appraisal seeks to detect failure. On the other side of the spectrum, External Failure is when the systems that were in place don’t work and the problem is passed on to the end user. To move problems from External Failure to Prevention, organizations often come up with various solutions. We add checks, create new systems, and assign people new responsibilities. The problem with this is though it may prevent the original problem from originally happening, you just added another thing the individual has to do into perpetuity (or until you change out of command, whichever comes first). On the grand level, we have heard Army Leaders try and address this same problem with the number of mandatory training requirements posed on units. The number of hours required of us exceeds the number of hours we have available per day. If we can see that this is a problem at the Army level, why don’t we see this as a problem at the company level? As Commanders, we see problems all the time and it is left to us, or those we assign to it, to solve these problems. Why add one more thing to your Soldier’s plate, when they already don’t have enough time to do the job they should be doing- training to fight and win. The best solution to a problem is something that adds no cost and no time. How do we achieve this? It requires a bit more time initially, and this feels especially troublesome when you feel like you have no time available at the moment, but it will save you time in the long run when you no longer have to dedicate time to the problem. Grab a sheet and create an Ishikawa diagram. An Ishikawa diagram kind of looks like fish bones, with the head being the problem and each of the spurs being one of six categories: People, Task, Site, Equipment and Control. On each of these spurs write down everything that could have been a cause for the problem in that category.
 Gabarro, John J. and John P. Kotter. “Managing your Boss.” Harvard business Review OnPoint 3928. 1993. Pg 150–151
 Ibid, 155
 Burke, Crispin J. “No Time, Literally, For All Requirements.” https://www.ausa.org/articles/no-time-literally-all-requirements . Association of the United States Army. 4 April 2016.
 “Cause and Effect Analysis.” Mind Tools. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMC_03.htm. Last visited on 21 April 2017.
This should help direct your attention to where the real problems lie, or where you might need to investigate further. Use this knowledge to create solutions that eliminate the problems, enables your Soldiers to spend more time on doing what they signed up for, and requires no additional oversight.
No matter how many problems we solve, there will always be new ones that present themselves. While I mentioned just a few M.B.A principles applicable to issues I faced as a Troop Commander, there are many more that remain unmentioned that are just as valuable to Army leadership. I am not stating that getting an M.B.A is the way to make you a better leader in the Army; it is just one of many. Those that are reading this article, are already on the right path. They are looking for additional professional development to become better leaders for our Soldiers. To best do this, I would encourage all of you to extend your readings to professional development circles outside of the military. There is always something to be learned by how another group tackles similar problems.
Gabarro, John J. and John P. Kotter. “Managing your Boss.” Harvard business Review OnPoint 3928. 1993.
“Cause and Effect Analysis.” Mind Tools. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMC_03.htm. Last visited on 21 April 2017.