Organizations are Like Hair

When I was young and wild, I had beautiful hair.  To be honest, I’ve never cared for hair since I was in the 9th grade I’ve been cutting it as short as possible, and I’ve been doing it long enough now that I have no idea what color my hair is anymore. So, although I do not fit the bill, the metaphor I’m about to make, still works.  That metaphor is that organizations are like hair.

I know people that cut their hair every two weeks.  They never change the style, they never experiment.  They know what works and they are the guys that say things like, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it”, “you don’t mess with the classics.”  They keep tight control over their hair and never let it get out of sorts.  This example shows what most leaders and managers want in their organizations.  They fight to stay standardized and look to control as much of their processes as possible.  There are many organizations that this works for, but this kind of leadership does not leave room for innovation and progress.  You can’t adjust processes and functions when you are doing the same things.

Additionally, you can’t change your hairstyle in any meaningful way without going through that weird medium length sloppy-hair stage.  You know, the stage where some will only lay flat and others will only stick straight up.  This is the stage where you test your commitment to the new style.  How much do you want it? If you are weak, or if you aren’t sure of what you want, you will quit and go back to what you know.  This stage in the organization is where most leaders lose their nerve and think the new efforts have failed.  On many occasions, this early exit is a tragic mistake which causes future efforts to die before they even happen.  Leaders must accept there is going to be growing pains with progress.

Eventually, you will have to cut your hair.  That doesn’t mean you have to go back to your old style, but you do need to get it back under control and set things right again.  Organizationally, this means you have to pull the crazy experimenting back a bit and look at providing more stable processes.  There will always be a need to experiment and take some risk, but after letting your people get wild and outside of the box, you will need to bring all that back in and get the balance back to the organization.  Too much wild-wild-west type of stuff in the organization can be exhausting so you will want to keep some of the momentum going for progress, without so much risk and experimenting.

So, let your hair grow and give your people some room to try new stuff!

 

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Do Tradition and Heritage Hold You Back?

Standardization ruins organizations.  Once we get to the point that we are trying to make everyone do the same thing, without thought, we are doomed.  Most organizations and the people within them get into a rhythm.  They have the same annual events, traditions, and these events are rarely discussed with any serious intent.  The members of the organization are expected to uphold these traditions, and the leaders often expect everyone to participate.  But do these traditions do anything positive for the organization?

It depends.  Most of our traditions are no longer providing value to our processes but are more about culture.  But even traditions that contribute to culture can be problematic.  The military’s Change of Command Ceremony is one such example.  When the ceremony was created, it was done so out of necessity.  Most personnel in a military unit did not know who the commander of the unit was, and it caused much confusion on the battlefield.  This ceremony was designed to show everyone who the new commander was to alleviate that problem, and it worked.  Fast-forward to today, and we continue the tradition, but there is rarely an occasion where members will not know who the unit’s commander is, but we still spend weeks preparing for these ceremonies every two years.  The commander’s and their families enjoy them, and it is a great honor for them to earn a command, but almost everyone else is there because they are required.  The officer/enlisted structure is also antiquated and has lost its usefulness.  On the positive side, the military’s uniforms, many of the customs to include saluting, standing for senior members, reveille, retreat, taps, and countless others add to the discipline and positive culture of the units.

And what about the senior members of the organization?  Could they be holding back innovation?  Much like standardization, continuity is a term we must be careful with.  There is a point that continuity stops helping and starts holding the unit back from progress.  Something that was tried in the nineties may very well work now.  Not because we are better, but because technology may have made things easier than they were in the past.  We need to ensure our senior members value change and progress over standardization and continuity.

We must be cautious of sacrificing any future progress for short-term gains.  It might be tempting, but the short-term gains that too much standardization and continuity provide are addictive and will become the culture your organization begins to form around.  Soon enough, your organization will become irrelevant because short-term gains cannot compete with long-term progress.  Of course, this is not easy, and nobody has the perfect answer, but we must be brave enough to have the conversation.  It may feel bad to say the DoD no longer needs a separate officer and enlisted core, especially from the officer’s perspective, but it’s a conversation we must have, or we risk becoming too caught up in tradition.

 

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Eliminate Loadmasters

I decided to stick with the “eliminate” theme for this string of articles even though it causes a little more drama than is necessary.  It is an excellent way to determine if the person responding has read the article, or merely read the headline.  Much like my last article, I do not seriously mean to eliminate all loadmasters.  They play a vital role in the Air Force’s global mobility mission.  What I propose is that we significantly alter when and how they perform the loading/unloading functions.

There has been a program in the Air Transportation world called APEX or Aerial Port Expeditor for many years and the Phase II program before that.  It is quite simply a program that trains a 2T2 to perform the role of the loadmaster.  This ability provides an aerial port the flexibility to load aircraft long before the aircrew arrives and to start right away once maintenance gives the green light.  But the program is showing secondary effects that are beginning to play out.

Loadmasters are losing opportunities to load at aerial ports with the APEX program which is reducing their proficiency.  Additionally, it is becoming somewhat difficult for them to maintain their qualifications or currency because the port is loading many of the aircraft.

To solve this, I have heard discussions about potentially limiting the amount of aircraft the port can APEX, or only uploads that meet weight or pallet minimums will be eligible.  To be blunt, these are dumb solutions, and I hope we discuss them just long enough to discover how this would not make the Air Force better but how it serves to maintain the status quo.  So, what is the solution?

This is a difficult problem to fix, but I think it is essential to move forward instead of staying the same.  We can automatically eliminate the options of getting rid of the APEX program or limiting it.  The solution I see as being the most beneficial is by creating a Flying Port Dawg program.

The FPD would be modeled after the Flying Crew Chief program.  Why recreate the wheel if someone has already completed the work?  This should use the program only for air-land operations.  No air-drop missions yet!  And only for C5 and C17 aircraft.  We could start with simple channel missions to more robust ports to build the program and then expand it from there to support contingency missions and SAAMs.  There would be a need for additional training to ensure they perform any loadmaster responsibilities performed while in flight, but it would also be an excellent opportunity to look at those tasks to determine if they are still important.  And much like the FCC program, when they are at home station, they are working in their assigned section.  Hopefully not ATOC, since I’ve already tried to reimagine its functionality.

There is a manpower cost to this program, but if implemented, there would be an excess of loadmasters to realign.  This is not meant to start a battle of who is more important, but to highlight that much of the tasks performed by these two AFSCs overlap and the difference in who does the work between a 1A2 or a 2T2 is impossible to distinguish.

 

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Eliminate ATOC

For my typical readers, this article will depart from my usual leadership centered topics and will instead focus on a functional role.  My professional community (Port Dawgs) are a wild bunch that will no doubt eviscerate me if this article is dumb, so I must approach this topic like I do everything else…just spit it out and see what happens.  My best-case scenario is it provides a viewpoint that creates conversations and that conversation turns into action.  Worst-case scenario is they will call me an idiot (which is not the worst thing I’ve been called). Either way, let’s get rid of ATOC.

The internet is a game-changer.  Or at least is was a game-changer in 1990 but somehow, I don’t believe we have fully taken advantage of this monumental opportunity.  It is long overdue for us to do so.  ATOC is something the internet could have replaced with some shifting in tasks and a little flexibility.  Not the ATOC flight (cape forecasting, load planning, etc.), the section.  The first charge of ATOC is to be the command and control (C2) of the Aerial Port.  It has been ages since this was the case in reality.  We have established SOEs that the sections adhere to and for the majority of the time they are autonomous.  They need very little C2 from ATOC.

Let’s start with the inbound and outbound controllers.  Keep in mind these are general functions found at most large ports.  All squadrons would need to adjust it a bit to make it work.  Each section in the port has a dispatcher if they work on the flightline.  And everyone has access to GATES.  Because of this, all sections usually skip ATOC and get aircraft info on their own.  This has been happening for a long time and now we have GATES that will usually feed us this info.  Easily we can eliminate these functions.

Senior Controller.  The senior controller position used to be quite valuable, especially in the absence of the Duty Officer (DO).  They run the control center and ensure all the controllers are doing what they are supposed to do.  But if we eliminate the other controller positions the senior controller position is pointless.

Duty Officer.  The duty officer position is important.  We do need a position with actual authority to make decisions and advocate on behalf of the Aerial Port.  Provide two or more depending on local needs to ensure they are not overwhelmed with the additional work.  Put them in a mobile workstation inside a truck with a radio, smartphone, tablet, and laptop so they are always connected to the unit’s needs.  We also need a 24/7 point of contact for the 618 AOC or APCC to contact for emergent requirements such as MICAP, HRs, etc.  Additionally, we would transfer the Ramp controller’s responsibilities to the DO.  They would take the paperwork to the crew, brief them, and ensure the uploads are going well.  They would also be responsible to coordinate with Command Post and Maintenance.  Times will need to be input by the section dispatchers and ATOC will no longer need to deal with the Form 77.  Data Records will be responsible for checking the 77 (if we even need a 77).  This will put the pressure on the dispatchers to ensure they have quality dispatchers.  On a side note, why don’t we have a formal dispatcher’s course?  I’ll look into that…

Local management will determine where to align the DO and the few other sections in the ATOC flight operationally and administratively.

Clearly, there are many items I haven’t addressed but this isn’t intended to be an all-encompassing solution.  It is intended to start the conversation.  It’s time to put a working group together so we can talk about how to actually utilize the leaps in technology we are seeing instead of simply converting paper documents to electronic documents and leaving our processes the same.

 

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Leadership Patience

Leadership patience is the ability to lead without having to drive the train on every issue.  Many leaders struggle with this.  Even the best leaders struggle with letting go and gently guiding the direction of the organization instead of moving hard and fast on the issues.  Patience is often overlooked, especially when it comes to leadership.  Don’t get me wrong, there are most certainly times when you need to move quickly and decidedly, but if you are being a good leader, these moments will be rare.  Don’t worry, leaders don’t have all the answers, many times they have very few answers, but they do know how to get the team to discover the answers.  That is leadership patience.

Far too often I see leaders making decisions before the discussion and then fail to listen once the discussion happens because they already made the decision.  It can be difficult to hold off on making a decision, and most leaders know the direction they want to go, but make a deliberate effort to know the direction you want to go and then be receptive to different ways of how to get there.

New leaders need to be very careful about having preconceived notions about the organizations they are taking over.  Deciding what to do and how to do it before you have been brought up to speed on all the nuances of the organization is a costly mistake and the recovery can take significant time.  If you want to see how your ideas will be received, you can do that without giving away your desire to implement them.  Simply ask the question and listen to the response.  You should be able to distinguish biased answers from legitimately thoughtful responses.

Simply put, people do not like change.  In many cases, they will fight change even when they know it is a good change.  I think the biggest reason for this is because it takes energy to change.  In our busy organizations, change takes energy away from important things we are already doing.  Taking that energy and using it on change creates anxiety because the new process may not even work.  This is why following a change management methodology is wise.  It helps reduce the anxiety of change and can help create an intellectual and emotional drive to change which makes the effort worthwhile.

Listen to your people.  It takes longer, you might not get the answer you want, and your forfeit perceived control, but the only way to effectively lead is my listening to the people under your charge.  Listening is difficult for everyone and is especially difficult as we get older and more experienced.  So, take the time to listen, slow the process down and be patient!  We all know you could change it and be finished in a few days, but unless you want to be stuck doing the tactical level work, you need to be patient and take the few weeks to listen and create a plan the team is willing and excited to work with.

 

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Leadership is Uncomfortable

If you are doing it right, leadership is uncomfortable. Not in a weird, creepy way, but in an “I have to do things I don’t want to do kind of way.”  These “things” are different for everyone, but every leader has things they have to do that make them uncomfortable.  I think if we are honest with ourselves we mostly uncomfortable with the same few things.  We all know that getting outside of what makes us comfortable is vital for a leader but being honest about this and talking about these times will make it easier to step outside that comfort zone.  The few things I get uncomfortable with or at least give me some level of anxiety are below.

Making decisions.  I have no issues making a decision.  I rarely, if ever, get analysis paralysis, or make premature decisions.  I think I’m an above average at critical thinking.  But even with high self-confidence, I still get uncomfortable making decisions.  I want to make the right one, I know I will make mistakes, but what kind of mistake will I make and what cost will that mistake incur?   Will it hurt the people that work for me?  Will my decision set my organization back to a place that was even before I made the decision?  Time will be lost, but will that lost time be worth it?  The big thing with making decisions is to realize that you will make a mistake, you will screw it up from time to time.  But as long as you recognize these moments early and learn from them, the lost time is not wasted.  It is time well spent because you learned and will apply it the next time you face that situation.

Tough conversations (confrontation). Talking to your boss about their toxic behavior, telling a coworker they smell bad and need to shower, telling someone you like that they are doing a lousy job, or firing them.  These are all very uncomfortable situations, and they never get better.  The hardest for me is to tell your peer or your supervisor that they are making a mistake or doing something that is causing a problem.  It is especially tricky when you know they will react poorly to your input.  The best way to handle this is to provide many examples and do your best to be gentle.  Taking criticism is hard but getting into a match of who makes the most mistakes will not help the situation.  Give them an opportunity to respond to the criticism, but don’t get involved in a back and forth about who does what.  If they want to talk about your behavior, tell them that you are more than willing to discuss it after you have resolved the current issue.  Being calm and reasonable is usually the best way to deal with the confrontation.

Pressure to perform.  Let’s face it; performance is why you get paid.  A leader is responsible for tasks that they are not actually going to do.  You have to ensure people do well and to do that you must make sure the processes are there to support high-quality work.  This, above all, is uncomfortable.  How do you get people to perform at a high level?  How do you get them to want to do the tedious work and do it every day?  Everywhere and every job is different, but listening to your people is the first step, having high standards, feeding confidence to your people and holding them accountable is a great start.  Work hard and be deliberate in your actions and you will do great.

 

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Is Changing Your Mind Good Or Bad?

It’s Good.  That’s the answer.  There are always circumstances that will dictate whether there has been a positive or negative effect from changing your mind, but let’s look at this question from the general position of, should one be open to changing their mind.  And from this perspective, the answer is unequivocally yes!

In politics, this is called flip-flopping.  A term flung around like it’s a disease.  In real life, being open to the possibility that your initial position is wrong, takes much more strength than stubbornly grasping to that position.  Not to say this is an easy task.  Our decisions are based on many things that we don’t always understand, outside of some experts in the field.  Personally, I struggle with this as much as anyone, although as of late I have been making a deliberate attempt to get better at it.

What positive effect does changing your mind have?  The first thing it tells them is that you are willing to listen.  This is a vital skill for a leader.  The ability to listen to the people you lead and the humility to let them change your mind cannot be understated.  I’ve experienced situations from both sides of this problem and can tell you that feeling like your leaders are listening to you gives you a great sense of belonging, says you have a voice and encourages engagement from the team members.

Changing one’s mind must be tempered to ensure you don’t actually become a leader that can’t stick to a decision.  Going back and forth is detrimental any organization.  There should be a point that a decision has been made and the group moves on.  Then the decision can be readdressed later if the situation changes or the results of the last decision were not positive.

What negative effect does changing your mind have?  I previously had a boss that had zero original ideas and never made a decision until he could get some sort of consensus.  His decision-making capabilities don’t sound so bad as I type it, but trust me; he was a “go with the popular opinion” type of boss.  There were so many occasions where a person would have a conversation with him, and there would be an agreement only to find out they changed their mind after talking to someone else.  It was almost a game to try to be the last one to talk to him before the decision had to be made.

Be wary of phrases like ‘That’s the way we have always done it’ or ‘We tried that before, and it didn’t work.’  These are indicators that the culture of your organization does not embrace change.  Which probably means your leaders are not open to changing their minds.  It’s time to have these kinds of conversations in our workplace and show how being open to new options and changing a decision does not automatically translate to a negative.

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