Navy Seal Lessons Part 3

This is part three in a series of business posts about things I learned as I was taking a series of defensive shooting classes with a Navy Seal. So if this isn’t your cup of tea, feel free to skip these posts. If you missed part one, you can find it here and part two can be found here.

During the pistol 3 class that I took with Jeff Gonzales (the retired Navy Seal Team 4 BUDS instructor, CEO of Trident Concepts and head of training at the Range in Austin) we got the opportunity to work close up to the targets and do more lateral and forward movement “shoot-on-the-move” type tests.  It is incredibly challenging to shoot an 8″ target reliably at 15-20 yards two times while walking, trust me. Yet it is an invaluable skill, because standing “on the X” is a dangerous thing to do when someone is shooting back at you. You’ve got to keep moving when you’re shooting until you can find cover or defeat the target.

“Everyone must take a step forward before drawing.”

During the training he made it very clear that we all had to follow his instructions to the letter for safety’s sake.  He said, “Everyone must take a step forward before drawing.” It seemed a little odd at first… wouldn’t you want to go for your pistol immediately, get it in your hands, try to stabilize yourself and the firearm in the 5 yards that you have before you have to make an incredibly difficult shot and then follow it up with another incredibly difficult shot immediately after that? The more time you have with your pistol out and pointed downrange the better, right?

Sure, and probably yes, but that’s within an environment where there aren’t other students. The problem is if I draw from my holster first, and the person next to me takes a step forward, now they’re in front of the muzzle of my pistol. So it is incredibly dangerous situation if one person draws and another person walks.  Having everyone draw first would necessitate everyone taking the same amount of time to draw from their holster, which is less likely to be true, unlike walking where everyone generally has the same walking pace.  Some people are just wildly slower at drawing from a holster than other people. If everyone takes one step first before drawing, everyone is walking at, more or less, the same pace and no one is in front of each other’s pistol.

It took me a while to fully grok how simple but useful this training advice was. In a business context I think we tend to forget simple things like this. We forget to look around and see what will happen if someone is quick to make changes while everyone else is still cooling their heels.  It can take people wildly off guard, and put them in a position where they feel threatened, left behind, on their own or any number of bad sensations. This is a quick path to a bad corporate culture, or worse.

In today’s consensus-driven business climate, it can feel incredibly annoying to have to wait for others to catch up. Sure, you know the right thing to do and everyone around you is simply failing to see the genius of the potential of your idea. If they would only move faster, or do what you ask! However, if you just sprint ahead, there are people behind you.  Or worse, if you stop while others are marching forward, they can get caught in the crossfire of your cross-purposes ideals of what should be happening.

I’m not personally of fan of bringing everyone into the discussion on every business decision. I find that most business decisions are rarely made better with lots of people in the room. My favorite example for this was a series of vision and mission statements eBay had. For example, “The vision statement of eBay is to provide consumers with an intercontinental marketplace through the world wide web, allowing almost anyone to trade a host of items easily, with this mechanism allowing for a host of financial opportunities across the globe.” That word-heavy corporate drivel is the kind of thing that is created by a huge team of people who lack a unified direction.  Eventually, probably realizing how bad that was long after it had been printed up all over the place, some other team came up with something slightly more readable, “eBay’s corporate vision is to be the world’s favorite destination for discovering great value and unique selection.” – still too long, awful and unmemorable, but at least you know what they’re talking about, sorta. I mean, it’s still wrong, as tons of items aren’t unique, but it’s closer.

Alas, consensus in corporate direction, I shake my fist at thee! That is not to say there isn’t a way to get people’s buy-in. For instance, you could pick two or three options and let people vote on their favorites, rather than have a large group of people all try to invent a single mutant sentence.

So while perhaps ideas and direction should be dealt with by a single person or a very small team of people who actually are good at defining direction (think an instructor) you still need to tell the rest of the organization (think the students in a class) what to do. Without that, your group lacks team cohesion and people simply have no idea what to do. That’s a fast path to morale issues as well. But almost more important than telling them what to do is to tell them why they’re doing it.

If I had just been told what to do without knowing why to do it, I may have considered Jeff’s advice more of a best-practice, and not an outright safety hazard to the people around me. Obviously one carries a lot more weight than the other. Without context, the people in your corporation lack the knowledge and likely the importance of why they’re doing whatever it is you want them to do. You need to gain consensus not just for keeping the peace or morale, but to make sure people are bought in on why it matters – the company’s financial health is at stake.

I worked at a company in the early 2000s that had an daunting product committee comprised of about 8 vice presidents – most of them who had very little understanding of what the company actually did (a governance person doesn’t necessarily know anything about how firewalls are sold). As a fledgling product manager I found that I had to go through this gauntlet for every product I wanted to launch – a daunting task, given that I didn’t have any rapport or power to leverage.  So instead of walking blind into a room of 8 people, one of whom is bound to want to seem like the smartest person in the room and will find anything wrong they can find to show the other VPs that they’re the smart one, I decided to take a different tact: talk to every one of them ahead of time.

By getting buy-in from each and every one of them before I walked into the room, not only had I gained the missing rapport that I didn’t have otherwise, but they all were fighting with each other to explain what a good idea it was. Invariably there would be one minor objection somewhere and I was prepared for that, because again, someone wants to seem smart. But in the end they always said yes to everything I proposed on the very first attempt – a feat not possible if you went in direct as my co-workers found out the hard way. It meant that I was also a high performing employee, not because my ideas were better, I just knew the importance of getting consensus and I found a way to avoid bureaucracy.

So it’s not always a matter of getting consensus for the troops – sometimes you have to lead from the rear and get the generals to do what needs to happen. It’s not always clear from the lofty glass offices what’s going on down in the boiler room and they don’t necessarily know how important something is to the team or the direction of the company, despite their title. Sometimes you have to push to get what you need done and pushing is never easy or fun, but it’s often the only way to accomplish your business objectives. You’ve got to get everyone marching to the same beat, walking forward at the same pace and aiming their weapons at the same targets.

This ends part three of the series. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. There are more coming. Stay tuned.

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Robert Hansen

Robert is an executive with a smart phone. Trying to tackle the big meaty problem of mobility, in the modern world where content and creativity are requirements of a job well done.